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Peace talks between Afghan officials, Taliban to start in September - Afghan officials

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Peace talks between warring Afghan sides will begin in early September said the country’s top peace negotiator on Thursday in Kabul, a crucial diplomatic process needed to end about two decades of war in Afghanistan.

Abdullah Abdullah, a prominent politician and the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation said Afghan officials were ready to hold talks with the Taliban from early September.

His comments come at a time when prospects of peace talks were looking bleak over the issue of releasing a last batch of Taliban prisoners.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s team has been pushing both sides to resolve difference and sit across the negotiating table, paving the way to end one of America’s longest war.

However, hours after Abdullah’s declaration, the Taliban’s lead negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai told Reuters that no peace talks were planned with Afghan officials for early September.

Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, echoed Abdullah’s confidence that talks could start next week, saying major hurdles including the release of prisoners from both sides were not far from resolution.

“It seems that most of the hurdles have been either removed or we are in the process of building consensus on a solution. I am cautiously optimistic that this will not be a further hurdle on the way,” Atmar said from Kabul in discussion hosted by Washington D.C.-based United States Institute of Peace, broadcast online.

The Taliban has been demanding 5,000 prisoners be released before it moves to talks, but the Afghan government has stalled the release with 320 to go, a handful of whom foreign powers including France and Australia object to releasing.

Atmar added that the government was working to reach a consensus with international players on the release of prisoners.

The Afghan government is also demanding a small number of Afghan security force members it says the Taliban are still holding be released.

Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Jonathan Landay in Washington; Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Toby Chopra and Lisa Shumaker

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