Two Western hostages have been released from Taliban custody in exchange for three ranking Taliban prisoners, raising hopes for peace talks between the militant group and the government in Kabul.
The release took place on November 19 in the southern Nawbahar district of Zabul Province, a region that is largely under Taliban control, according to Taliban sources and Afghan officials.
The two academics, who were teaching at the American University of Kabul were 'flown out of Zabul by American helicopters,' AFP quoted an unidentified police official as saying more than three years after they were captured by the Taliban.
The reports come hours after Taliban sources said three Taliban prisoners were freed by the Afghan government and flown to Qatar as part of an exchange deal.
The arrangement is seen by the Afghan government as a key move in securing direct talks with the Taliban, which has so far refused to engage with what it calls a 'puppet' regime in Kabul.
The American University of Afghanistan welcomed news of the release of its professors -- U.S. national Kevin King, 60, and Australian Timothy Weeks, 48 -- who were kidnapped by the Taliban in August 2016.
They were swapped for Anas Haqqani -- the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network -- and two other prominent militants: Hafiz Rashid Omari and Haji Milli Khan.
The Haqqani network is known for carrying out brutal attacks in Afghanistan and is part of the Taliban group.
The White House said it welcomed the release of the Western hostages, saying they had been 'successfully recovered' and were receiving U.S. medical care.
Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that 'we pray for the full recovery of both men, who endured significant hardship during their captivity, and wish them well as they reunite with their loved ones in the near future.'
A statement by the Taliban called the swap a 'positive action' that 'can help in the peace process.'
In a joint statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne said they were ' profoundly pleased and relieved' and called the releases a 'confidence-building' measure they hoped would 'set the stage for a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue.'
King's family said he is now with U.S. officials in Afghanistan getting medical care ahead of his return to the United States.
'This has been a long and painful ordeal for our entire family, and his safe return has been our highest priority. We appreciate the support we have received and ask for privacy as we await Kevin's safe return,' said King's sister, Stephanie Miller.
Upon landing in Doha on November 19, the three Taliban commanders were handed over to the Taliban political office in the Qatari capital, Reuters reported.
The three Taliban commanders will remain under 'house arrest' in Doha, according to Tolo News.
A week ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the 'conditional release' of the three Taliban figures but the exchange of the two professors stalled, with Kabul blaming the militant group for the delay.
On November 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Ghani to 'review the steps necessary to implement President Ghani's decision to release three high-level Taliban detainees,' the State Department said.
'Pompeo reiterated U.S. support for Ghani's decision and committed to work closely together to address violence if the president's decision does not produce the intended results,' according to the statement.
The United States has been holding a series of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar over recent years in an attempt to end the 18-year war.
Anas Haqqani and Omari were arrested in the eastern Khost Province in 2014. Haji Milli Khan is the uncle of Anas Haqqani and was reportedly arrested in eastern Paktika Province in 2011.
The United States, after allying with Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father of Sirajuddin and Anas, to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, by 2012 had designated his organization a terrorist group. The group has been fighting NATO and Afghan government forces since 2001.
Hafiz Rashid Omari is the brother of Muhammad Nabi Omari, the former Guantanamo inmate who is currently a key member of the Taliban political office in Qatar.
With reporting by Afghan Islamic Press, Tolo News, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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