June 20, 2013

Taliban offer to free U.S. soldier in prisoner swap

By Kathy Gannon and Kay Johnson / The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban offered to free a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai eased his opposition Thursday to joining planned peace talks.

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This image provided by IntelCenter shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban containing footage of a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl, left. A Taliban spokesman, Shaheen Suhail, in a telephone interview from the newly opened Taliban offices in Doha, Qatar, said Thursday, that they are ready to hand over Bergdahl for five of their senior operatives being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

AP

The idea of releasing some of the Taliban's most senior operatives has been controversial over fears they would simply return to the battlefield.

The proposal to trade U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the Taliban detainees was made by senior Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in response to a question during an exclusive phone interview with The Associated Press from his newly opened political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf nation of Qatar.

The prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban's agenda before even opening peace talks with the U.S., said Suhail, a top Taliban figure who served as first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad before the Taliban government's ouster in 2001.

"First has to be the release of detainees," Suhail said Thursday when asked about Bergdahl. "Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward."

Bergdahl, 27, of Hailey, Idaho, is the only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan.

Suhail said Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition."

Col. Tim Marsano with the Idaho National Guard said Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, plan to speak at an event honoring the soldier in Hailey on Saturday.

"They're aware that the possibility of a transfer or exchange is on the table and they're encouraged by it," Marsano said.

Bergdahl's parents earlier this month received a letter from their son through the International Committee of the Red Cross. They did not release details of the letter but renewed their plea for his release. The soldier's captivity has been marked by only sporadic releases of videos and information about his whereabouts.

The reconciliation process with the Taliban — seen by most as the only way to end the nearly 12-year war — has been a long and bumpy one. It began nearly two years ago when the U.S. opened secret talks that were later scuttled by Karzai when he learned of them.

It was then that the U.S. and Taliban discussed prisoner exchanges and for a brief time it appeared that the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be released and sent to Doha to help further the peace process. But Karzai stepped in again and demanded they be returned to Afghanistan over Taliban objections.

Since then, the U.S. has been trying to jumpstart peace talks and the Taliban have made several offers — including sharing power in Kabul. The Taliban have also attended several international conferences and held meetings with representatives of about 30 countries.

Afghan and U.S. officials have said the Taliban being considered for any exchange deal are:

— Mohammad Fazl , a former Taliban chief of army staff and the deputy minister of defense.

— Abdul Haq Wasiq, former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, who was in direct contact with supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar during the Taliban rule, according to military documents.

— Mullah Norullah Nuri , who has been described as one of the most significant former Taliban officials held at Guantanamo. He was a senior Taliban commander in Mazar-e-Sharif and previously was a Taliban governor in two provinces in northern Afghanistan,

(Continued on page 2)

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