Afghan Taliban offers to free US soldier held captive since 2009
In return, militant group wants five operatives released from Guantanamo Bay
The Afghan Taliban are ready to free a US soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their senior operatives imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay as a conciliatory gesture, a senior spokesman said yesterday.
The offer to exchange US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for the Afghan detainees came as an Afghan government spokesman said President Hamid Karzai was now willing to join planned peace talks with the Taliban - provided that the Taliban flag and nameplate were removed from the militant group's new political office in Doha, in Qatar. Karzai also wanted a formal letter from the US supporting the Afghan government.
Bergdahl, 27, is the only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war and is believed to be in Pakistan.
Speaking from Doha, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail said Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition".
Among the five prisoners the Taliban have consistently requested are Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander. Both have been held for more than a decade.
The prisoner exchange was the first item on the Taliban's agenda before even opening peace talks, Suhail said. "First has to be the release of detainees," Suhail said when asked about Bergdahl. "Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward."
US Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Doha ahead of a conference on the Syrian civil war. He was not expected to meet the Taliban although other US officials might in coming days.
The reconciliation process began nearly two years ago when the US opened secret talks that were later scuttled by Karzai. The US has since tried to jump-start peace talks and the Taliban have made small gestures, including an offer to share power.
Prospective talks were again thrown into question on Wednesday when Karzai became infuriated by the Taliban's move to cast their new office in Doha as a rival embassy.
However, Karzai spokesman Fayeq Wahidi said Karzai was willing to join talks if the US followed through with promises he said were made by Kerry. Wahidi said Kerry promised Karzai that the Taliban flag and a nameplate with their former regime's name would be removed.