Prisoners sought by Taliban on flight to Doha, peace talks this weekend

Six prisoners sought by the Taliban left Kabul on a flight to Doha on Thursday evening, two government sources told Reuters, as the insurgents confirmed they would start long-awaited peace talks on Saturday.

The prisoners, who are accused of insider attacks on Afghan forces and whose release was objected to by some Western powers, are to be kept under supervision in Qatar’s capital where United States-brokered peace talks will also initially take place.

“The six will remain in Qatar until the end of November and could be transferred back to Kabul,” one of the sources told Reuters.

Taliban political office spokesman Muhammad Naeem said in a statement the group would take part in talks starting on Saturday, beginning with an inauguration ceremony.

The Afghan government negotiating team was scheduled to fly to Doha on Friday for peace talks, according to a Presidential Palace statement. Three government and one diplomatic source confirmed talks were expected to begin this weekend after months of delays.

U.S. President Donald Trump in a news conference announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was heading to Doha later on Thursday for the start of the talks. Pompeo in a statement said the talks presented a historical opportunity that must not be squandered.

“I urge the negotiators to demonstrate the pragmatism, restraint, and flexibility this process will require to succeed,” Pompeo said in the statement. “The United States is prepared to support as requested.”

The United States and other international players have been trying to usher the insurgent Taliban and the Afghan government to the negotiating table to bring an end to 19 years of war.

However, there have been deadlocks and delays since Washington signed its troop withdrawal pact with the insurgent group in February that stated “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 government prisoners would be released before talks.

The militant group has insisted that its own list of 5,000 be released, including six objected to by Western governments such as France and Australia for insider attacks on their forces.

The government source told Reuters the opening ceremony for negotiations was planned for Saturday, followed by technical discussions on the agenda for talks.

Diplomats and analysts have cautioned in recent weeks that among the first challenging steps would be to agree to a ceasefire after violence in the war-torn nation has grown sharply in recent months, leading to deepening mistrust between the two sides.