By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, Afghanistan (AA) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Kabul on Monday on an unannounced visit to revive the stalled intra-Afghan peace process.
The top U.S. diplomat was welcomed in the Afghan capital by Washington's frontman for the peace parley, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Hours before Pompeo's arrival, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, along with Qatari officials, pulled together the maiden contact -- though virtual through video conference -- between the Afghan government in Kabul and Taliban insurgents in Doha. It was meant to initiate prisoner swap and start with intra-Afghan talks as agreed in the landmark peace agreement last month.
"The over two-hour technical discussion today was important, serious, and detailed. My thanks to all sides. Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent," Khalilzad tweeted.
The seasoned diplomat said all sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. "We have also agreed to a follow-on technical meeting in the next two days," he said.
Meanwhile, director prisons Afghanistan, Ahmad Rashid, told Anadolu Agency that President Ashraf Ghani was set to issue a decree in 24 hours on the release of prisoners in connection with fears surrounding coronavirus.
This would, however, only include elderly prisoners with no ties to insurgents, he said.
In Afghanistan, some 40 people have so far tested positive for the virus that emerged in China last December, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Coronavirus Research Center. One person has also died.
The rejuvenated yet fragile Afghan peace process continues to face deadlocks as differences persist between Kabul and the Taliban over a proposed exchange of prisoners.
According to official sources, there are about 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.