Afghan government releases 80 of final 400 Taliban prisoners

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan government has begun releasing the last Taliban prisoners from a final batch of 400 who the militants want freed before they agree to start peace negotiations, a security agency spokesman said on Friday.

The government agreed on Sunday to release the 400 “hard-core” prisoners after consulting a grand assembly of elders and other community leaders, known as a Loya Jirga.

“The government … yesterday released 80 Taliban convicts out of the 400 that the Consultative Loya Jirga sanctioned for release to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire,” said Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council.

He did not say when the remaining 320 would be set free.

Disagreement over the release of the prisoners, who include some of those accused in connection with some of Afghanistan’s bloodiest attacks, has delayed negotiations for months as the United States withdraws troops under a deal signed with the Taliban in February.

President Ashraf Ghani on Monday issued a decree to release the final batch of prisoners.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to request for comment. They have previously said they would sit down for peace talks with the U.S.-backed government in Qatar within a week of the release of the last of the prisoners.

The Taliban have always refused to talk to the government, dismissing it as a U.S. “puppet”.

But they agreed to power-sharing talks under the deal struck with the United States, on the withdrawal of its troops in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Gaza Cease-Fire Holding

Egyptian negotiators have been frantically moving back and forth between Israeli representatives and those representing the terrorist group Hamas after another 72-hour cease-fire agreement was struck between the two sides.

Israel had previously said they would not agree to negotiations or a cease-fire unless Hamas stopped their terrorist rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

The cessation of hostilities went into effect around 5 p.m. eastern U.S. time Sunday after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets in the hour before it was to go into effect.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said they would be working with international aid groups to bring humanitarian supplies into the Gaza strip during the cease-fire.   Reports say that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledge financial support for the rebuilding of Gaza and for humanitarian aid to Palestinians trapped in the Gaza strip.

The talks broke down last Friday when Hamas, enraged that Israel had not removed a naval blockade, broke a previous cease-fire with rocket attacks.

There has been one reported incident since the cease-fire.  An Islamic militant was shot by the IDF after he opened fire on two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Qabalan.

Israeli Ambassador Slams U.N. Secretary-General

Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is calling out the body’s head for his open bias toward the terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza conflict.

After Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a verbal assault against Israel, saying they need to be investigated for their attacks that caused damage to some U.N. facilities in the Gaza Strip, Prosor responded by telling the Secretary-General he needs to realize who was behind the entire situation.

“Israel did not seek the confrontation,” Prosor said.  “We left Gaza with the intention of never returning.”

Prosor was referencing the 2005 unilateral withdrawal.

It was also pointed out to the Secretary-General that Hamas was using schools, hospitals and other locations to launch attacks.  On three separate occasions, Hamas weapons were found stored inside U.N. schools and the Secretary-General made no condemnation of Hamas for their actions in those cases.

Reports have begun from inside Israel that the government will agree to an extension of the 72-hour cease-fire to allow longer negotiations in Cairo, Egypt.  However, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces says they have plans in place to target Hamas leadership should they break the agreement and fire a single rocket into Israel.

Israel Pulls All Troops From Gaza

A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said that all ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza Tuesday morning as part of a 72-hour cease-fire agreement.

The two sides in the conflict have now sent representatives to Cairo where an Egyptian mediator will shuttle between the two sides to try and work out some kind of deal to bring a lasting peace in the conflict.

Israel had said they would not agree to a cease-fire or any deal until all the Hamas tunnels into the country were destroyed.  IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said that the destruction of 32 tunnels was completed late last night.

Lerner also told reporters that at least 3,500 rockets from Hamas had been fired into Israel at the time the cease-fire went into effect.  He said that Israeli troops were able to destroy at least 3,000 rockets being held in storage during the ground incursion into Gaza.

Hamas has said their demands now include international funding for the rebuilding of Gaza.

Kerry Meets With Netanyahu

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Israel trying to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the offensive in Gaza aimed at eliminating the terrorist threat to Israeli citizens.

Kerry reportedly made little progress with Netanyahu, who was enraged at the United States placing a ban on airlines flying into Ben Guiron International Airport for two days.  The FAA lifted the ban just before midnight Thursday.

Two senior State Department officials told the Washington Post that Kerry is trying to find a way to get a cease-fire done so he can work on a long term peace agreement.

Another sign that Israel is paying little attention to Kerry’s attempts to get them to stop defending themselves from Hamas was a statement from Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to troops about expanding the ground campaign.

“We are preparing the next stages of the fighting after dealing with the tunnels, and you need to be ready for any mission,” Yaalon told the soldiers. “You need to be ready for more important steps in Gaza, and the units that are now on standby need to prepare to go in.”

Hamas reiterated they will continue to fire rockets at Israeli citizens until they obtain their demands.

Egypt Calls To Restart Peace Talks

Egypt is calling for Hamas and Israel to sit down at the table and restart the peace talks that have been stalled for years as a way to end the current conflict.

Egyptian Foreign Minster Sameh Shukri met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today, working to find a framework to get the two sides sitting down to negotiate and end to the hostilities.

Shukri told reporters his goal is “to not only resolve this issue but also to set in motion once again the peace process that Secretary Kerry has been so actively involved in so as to end this ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Kerry flew to Cairo Monday to see how he could assist with the negotiations.  President Obama said that the administration is building in concern for civilians.

“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Obama said in Washington. “And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”

Kerry said that $47 million will be given by the United States for humanitarian aid to Gaza at the end of the hostilities.

Israel Stops Peace Talks With Palestinians

After the Palestinian leadership announced they have mended their rift with the terrorist group Hamas, Israel announced they will no longer participate in peace talks.

Hamas is considered a terrorist group by both Israel and the United States.  The terrorist group refuses to acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist.

Israeli spokesmen said that no talks would be considered until a new unity government takes shape among the Palestinians and that no talks will ever take place if Hamas is backing the government.

The announcement of the ending of talks came after a six-hour conference of senior Israeli leaders.

Palestinian leadership has been trying to portray the move in a positive light by saying that the government will not be made up of people who are connected to Hamas.

Kerry Blames Israel For Peace Process Problem

U.S Secretary of State John Kerry made a pointed attack at Israel, essentially blaming them for problems with the peace process.

While Kerry paid lip service to the actions of both sides by saying that he saw “unhelpful” actions on the parts of both the Israelis and Palestinians.  However, the pointed parts of his comments were all pointed at Israel.

Kerry said that the problem that is imperiling the peace process is Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.  The announcement came three days after Israel did not release Palestinian prisoners as demanded by the United States as part of the negotiations.

However, the actions were in response to the Palestinians attempting to get status with at least 15 United Nations organizations, a back door way to be established as a nation.  Kerry did not criticize the Palestinians for inciting the crisis despite their actions coming first.

“Secretary Kerry,” an official in Mr. Netanyahu’s office told the New York Times, “knows that it was the Palestinians who said ‘no’ to continued direct talks with Israel in November; who said ‘no’ to his proposed framework for final status talks; who said ‘no’ to even discussing recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; who said ‘no’ to a meeting with Kerry himself; and who said ‘no’ to an extension of the talks.”

Arab League Rejects Israel

The Arab League has stated conclusively they will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The members also said that Israel was the reason for a lack of progress in the peace process.

“We hold Israel entirely responsible for the lack of progress in the peace process and continuing tension in the Middle East,” the group said in a statement. “We express our absolute and decisive rejection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.”

The declaration by the Arab League is seen as a serious blow to the peace process as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said one of Israel’s unbending demands is recognition of the country by Arab nations.

Netanyahu believes that without recognition of Israel, there will be no way that anyone can have peace with the Jewish people.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in the region today to try and nudge the stalled peace process.

Kerry Returns To Middle East For Peace Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is moving back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators with a stated goal of finalizing a peace accord by spring.

Kerry will hold private talks today and Friday with Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on regarding a West Bank security plan. Kerry had unveiled details of the plan for the West Bank during a visit to the region last week.

Palestinians expressed their dislike of the proposed agreement. They expressed concerns that the deal will give in to Israeli demands while offering only promises to the Palestinian people.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the negotiations were really an “ongoing discussion” and that “we expect they wil talk about security, as they will discuss other issues.”

President Obama had said over the weekend he believed it was possible to get the framework of a deal together in just a few months.