Friday 6 December 2019

Hostages freed by Taliban as prisoner swap rekindles hopes of ending conflict


Ordeal over: Timothy Weeks and Kevin King while they were kept hostage. Photo: Reuters
Ordeal over: Timothy Weeks and Kevin King while they were kept hostage. Photo: Reuters

Dean Gray

The Taliban yesterday freed an American and an Australian held hostage since 2016 in exchange for three top Taliban figures - a move that the insurgent group asserted could help rekindle talks to end Afghanistan's 18-year war.

The hostages - American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks - were released in an area of southern Afghanistan heavily controlled by the Taliban, ending more than three years of captivity since they were abducted outside the American University in Kabul, where both had been professors.

A Taliban statement that followed the swap that freed the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the fearsome Haqqani network, called the exchange a "confidence-building measure" that could help bring an end to Afghanistan's endless war.

Anas Haqqani, along with an uncle, Hajji Malik Khan, and a Haqqani lieutenant, Hafiz Rashid Khan, were released by the Afghan government on Monday and flown to Qatar, where the extremist group has a political office in Doha.

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The US State Department said in a statement that Mr King and Mr Weeks were in the care of the US military, where they were recovering and would soon be reunited with their loved ones.

The two were released in southern Zabul province's Naw Bahar district, a region largely under Taliban control, according to a Taliban official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorised to talk to the media. Mr King and Mr Weeks were handed over to US forces and transported from the area in a helicopter.

"We are so happy to hear that my brother has been freed and is on his way home to us," said Mr King's sister, Stephanie Miller. "This has been a long and painful ordeal for our entire family, and his safe return has been our highest priority."

Their freedom came hours after the Afghan government released the three Taliban prisoners, presumably after securing assurances from the Qatar government that they will remain in Qatar and not return to the battlefield.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed gratitude for the hostages' release, adding Mr Weeks's family had asked for privacy.

"They have asked the government to convey their relief that their long ordeal is over, and their gratitude to all who have contributed to Tim's safe return," he said.

Irish Independent

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