Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has pardoned thousands of Taliban prisoners in a key preliminary step to intra-Afghan talks between a government delegation and the extremist group, his spokesman said early on Wednesday.
Ghani's move to release the 5,000 inmates marks the beginning of negotiations to end the 19 years of war that have pitted Taliban against the government in Afghanistan, Efe news reported.
"President Ghani has signed the decree that would facilitate the release of the Taliban prisoners in accordance with an accepted framework for the start of negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government," Spokesman Sediq Sediqqi wrote at midnight on Twitter. He said authorities would provide details throughout the day.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States' Afghanistan peace representative, said in a later Twitter message that prisoners' release would begin Saturday based on a list provided by insurgents.
Insurgents had already accepted the release of 1,000 prisoners from the government's side in a historic February 29 agreement in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and the United States, who also agreed to a 14-month staggered foreign troops withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Khalilzad said he urged either side to sit down and discuss the issue in Doha and work on further details, adding that the Afghan government had agreed to do so and that releasing the prisoners would be a significant step to relations.
The special envoy said however that violence by the Taliban remains high despite signs of progress toward peace and told insurgents to comply with their commitments.
Khalilzad said this would allow prisoner releases to be smooth and the peace process successful.
Tuesday was the last day set in the Qatar agreement for the release of the 5,000 Taliban from Afghan prisons as a preliminary negotiation step, a move Ghani had so far opposed, claiming such release should occur following bilateral talks.
Suhail Shaheen, the Qatari insurgent political office spokesman, said Tuesday that they had already provided a list of 5,000 prisoners to be released, adding that the tally was final.
The decree comes at a time of Afghan political instability after Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani's main rival at the polls and hitherto chief executive, rejected election results and proclaim himself president at a parallel Monday inauguration ceremony in Kabul.