By KATHY GANNON
ISLAMABAD — The Taliban on Tuesday freed an American and an Australian held hostage since 2016 in exchange for three top Taliban figures — a move that the insurgent group asserted could help rekindle talks to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war.
The hostages — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — were released in an area of southern Afghanistan heavily controlled by the Taliban, ending more than three years of captivity since they were abducted outside the American University in Kabul, where both had been professors.
A Taliban statement that followed the swap, which freed the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the fearsome Haqqani network, called the exchange a “confidence-building measure” that could help bring an end to Afghanistan’s endless war.
Anas Haqqani, along with an uncle, Hajji Malik Khan, and a Haqqani lieutenant, Hafiz Rashid Khan, were released by the Afghan government on Monday and flown to Qatar, where the extremist group has a political office in the capital, Doha.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that King and Weeks were in the care of the U.S. military, where they were recovering and would soon be reunited with their loved ones.
The two were released in southern Zabul province’s Naw Bahar district, a region largely under Taliban control, according to a Taliban official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media. King and Weeks were handed over to U.S. forces and transported from the area in a U.S. helicopter.
“We are so happy to hear that my brother has been freed and is on his way home to us,” said King’s sister, Stephanie Miller. “This has been a long and painful ordeal for our entire family, and his safe return has been our highest priority. We appreciate the support we have received and ask for privacy as we await Kevin’s safe return.”
Their freedom came hours after the Afghan government released the three Taliban prisoners, presumably after securing assurances from the Qatar government that they will remain in Qatar and not return to the battlefield.
In 2014 the Qatar government accepted five senior Taliban who were released from Guantanamo Bay prison by U.S. President Barak Obama in exchange for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Berdahl.
The five, including some accused of crimes that included orchestrating the slayings of 2,000 Shiite Muslims in northern Afghanistan, were forbidden from leaving Doha.
However, they were allowed to join the Taliban team negotiating directly with Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Anas Haqqani’s name was also put on the negotiation team even as he languished in an Afghan prison.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed gratitude for the hostages’ release, saying on Twitter that Weeks’ family had “asked the Australian government to convey their relief that their long ordeal is over, and their gratitude to all those who have contributed to Tim’s safe return.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also welcomed the men’s release, saying he appreciates “steps taken by all involved to make it possible.” Pakistan wields some influence over the Taliban and has played a behind-the-scenes role in trying to restart peace talks.