Afghan president: 3 Taliban to be released for held US, Australian

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced on Tuesday that his government would release three Taliban figures in an effort to have the insurgents free an American and Australian abducted in 2016 and held captive for three years.

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Ghani said at a press event broadcast live on state television that three members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network -- Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid -- would be released "conditionally in exchange" for an American identified as Kevin King and an Australian man identified as Timothy Weekes — who were both abducted at gunpoint outside the American University in Kabul where they worked as teachers, according to the Associated Press.

It was not clear if the three insurgents had been released yet. Ghani did not elaborate on when or where the prisoner exchange would take place. The Afghan president said the three insurgents had been under the custody of the Afghanistan government and were held at the Bagram prison, at an airbase that also houses U.S. troops just outside Kabul.

"In a demonstration of respect for humanity by the government and nation of Afghanistan, we decided to conditionally release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested in close cooperation with our international partners from other countries," Ghani said. "We can assure the families of both teachers that we welcome and honor those who come to our country to pursue education."

Ghani said his government decided to release the insurgents in order “to facilitate direct peace negotiations." He added that the release of the teachers was a "part of our main demands during the indirect negotiations with Taliban."

The Taliban have long demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, the deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network, often considered the strongest of the Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan. Anas Haqqani was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and handed over to the Afghan government, which later sentenced him to death. It was not clear when his execution was supposed to take place.

The Taliban released two videos showing the American and the Australian filmed from an undisclosed location while held in captivity. A video in January 2017 showed them appearing pale and gaunt. Weekes, who is Australian, pleaded with then President-elect Trump to intervene on their behalf.

“If we stay here for much longer, we will be killed. I don’t want to die here,” Weekes said in the video. “Donald Trump, sir, I ask you, please. This is in your hands. I ask you please to negotiate with the Taliban. If you do not negotiate with them, we will be killed.”

In a later video, King and Weekes looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16, 2017. Both said they are being treated well by the Taliban but that they remain prisoners and appealed to their governments to help set them free. U.S. officials said that American forces had launched a rescue mission to free the two, but the captives were not found at the raided location.

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"Our joint effort in tracing the two professors gave no result, and information suggests that their health and safety while being held by the kidnapping terrorists have deteriorated," Ghani said at the press conference Tuesday, according to DW.com.

The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Ghani, as President Trump halted talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in September, after a particularly deadly spate of Taliban attacks, including a Kabul suicide bombing that killed a U.S. soldier. The future of his government remains in limbo as the results from the Sept. 28 presidential elections have not been released yet. Preliminary results are expected on Nov. 14.

Fox News' Madeline Farber and the Associated Press contributed to this report.