By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, Afghanistan (AA) - In yet another blow to thorny peace process, the Taliban on Saturday announced they would not hold talks with a 21-member peace delegation announced by the Afghan government.
A day after the Afghan government finally came up with a 21-member delegation for talks, the Taliban insurgents raised objections over the formation of the committee.
In a statement, Zabiullah Mujahed, the Taliban spokesman, said they do not recognize and will not talk to Afghan government as the legitimate representatives of all Afghan sides.
"We shall only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conforms with our agreements", Mujahed added.
Hours ahead of the Taliban's objections, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan hailed the Afghan government for forming an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban.
Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said in a series of tweets that this consensus is a meaningful step that moves the parties significantly closer to intra-Afghan negotiations.
"I want to congratulate Afghan government, political & civil society leaders for coming together. They've forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. The Islamic Republic delegation reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women", he said.
On Friday, the government announced a 21-member committee under former intelligence chief Mohammed Masoum Stanekzai to kickstart the stalled talks.
Prior to the latest rift, the rejuvenated yet fragile Afghan peace process faced deadlocks as differences persisted between Kabul and the Taliban over a proposed exchange of prisoners.
According to official sources, there are 12,000-15,000 inmates, including foreigners from Pakistan, Central Asia and Gulf countries, in different prisons across Afghanistan.
The Taliban have demanded the release of 5,000 of their militants in return for the release of 1,000 captives, including Afghan government officials and security personnel.
The Afghan government, however, insists on releasing them in phases along with intra-Afghan talks and a ceasefire in place.