Afghan president signs off on Taliban prisoner release, peace talks expected in days

FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani arrives to his inauguration as president, in Kabul

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday signed a decree to release a final batch of "hardcore" Taliban prisoners demanded by the militants, sources told Reuters, paving the way for long-awaited peace talks to begin in Qatar.

"It is signed," a presidential palace source said.

Afghanistan's grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, on Sunday approved the release, under election-year pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump for a deal allowing him to bring home American troops.

The war has ground on since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Islamist Taliban government in late 2001.

"We are ready to sit for talks within a week from when we see our prisoners released. We are ready,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear when the release would happen.

"The original plan is to travel to Doha on Wednesday and the talks will begin on Sunday," a government source told Reuters before the decree was signed.

U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who reached an agreement with the Taliban in February for the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, welcomed the development, having spent months trying to bring the militant movement to the negotiating table with the government.

"In the next few days, we expect the completion of prisoner releases, then travel of the Islamic Republic team to Doha, & from there the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations," he said on Twitter.

The Taliban had demanded the release of the last 400 of 5,000 in total as a condition for joining the peace talks.

But the government had been hesitant as these prisoners were involved in some of the worst violence, including a 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul that killed more than 150 people - the deadliest attack in the 19-year insurgency.

The Taliban, in power from 1996-2001, previously refused to talk to the Afghan government, dismissing it as a puppet of the United States.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)