- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan on Thursday said he participated in a “lengthy” meeting with Taliban leaders as the militant group and Afghan government concerns mount that a peace deal could crumble amid ongoing violence and the coronavirus pandemic.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who has led the U.S. negotiations, met with the representatives in Doha, Qatar, the State Department announced, as part of a regional trip in support of reducing violence and continuing intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban.

In a tweet, Mr. Khalilzad explained the meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, “sought progress on a range of topics: a reduction in violence, humanitarian ceasefire as demanded by the international community to allow for better cooperation on managing COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan.”

He said the meeting also touched on accelerating a prisoner release by both the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as “actions necessary to secure the freedom of U.S. citizen Mark Frerichs, regional & international support for the peace process, and movement to intra-Afghan negotiations ASAP.”

Mr. Khalilzad hinted that there would be another meeting soon.

Last month, the Taliban announced it will be releasing 20 Afghan government prisoners, marking the first phase of its commitment under a landmark peace agreement with the U.S., after an initial release of 100 Taliban prisoners.

Up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners were expected to be released under the peace deal with the U.S., but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to release the prisoners claiming he had not agreed to such a deal. He instead offered to conditionally release 1,500 prisoners.

The Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban agreement called for the militant group and the Kabul government to start direct talks and a prisoner release, which had been slated for March 31 and have since stalled.

It also called for a distinct reduction in violence, but since the deal was struck, the Taliban has launched over 4,500 attacks, according to Reuters.

The targeted provinces have also been hit by the coronavirus outbreak, and humanitarian organizations continue to warn that Afghanistan could be severely impacted by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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