KABUL - The US has reportedly agreed in principle to release high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay in return for the insurgents' agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations in Qatar, a British national daily newspaper said.
The Guardian, citing sources familiar with the talks in the US and in Afghanistan, said the handful of Taliban figures will include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, and Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan.
The Taliban are also demanding the release of the former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund. Washington is reported to be considering formally handing him over to the custody of another country, possibly Qatar.
The releases would be to reciprocate for Tuesday's announcement from the Taliban that they are prepared to open a political office in Qatar to conduct peace negotiations "with the international community" – the most significant political breakthrough in ten years of the Afghan conflict.
The Taliban are holding just one American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old sergeant captured in June 2009, but it is not clear whether he would be freed as part of the deal.
Tuesday's announcement was made by email by a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid.
"Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations," Mujahid said. "In this regard, we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community."
It is not clear when the office will open, and there is also likely to be disagreement on the role of the Kabul government.
However, Tuesday's Taliban statement said the group was only interested in talking to the "United States of America and their foreign allies," Mujahid said.
President Hamid Karzai had preferred Saudi Arabia or Turkey to host the Taliban political bureau, but dropped his opposition to Qatar under heavy US pressure.
A former Taliban official and political analyst, Muhammad Hassan Haqyar, said the three former Taliban officials held at Guantánamo Bay were pioneers of the Taliban movement and played a vital role till the end.
Mullah Khair Khowa had served as a spokesman, interior minister and Herat governor during the Taliban regime, he said.
Khair Khowa and Akhund were traveling in a vehicle, two months after the fall of the Taliban regime, in Quetta city of Pakistan, when Pakistani intelligence officials had arrested Khair Khowa and handed him over to the US, but Niazi managed to escape, Haqyar recalled.
He said the US had demanded of Khair Khowa to help in peace process after his release.
According to Haqyar, Mullah Noorullah Noori was a resident of Shah Joy district in Zabul province and had served as governor for Laghman, Baghlan and Balkh provinces.
Mullah Fazil and Noori had an agreement with Gen. Dustam that the Taliban fighters would be evacuated from north safely, but Dustam in violation of that agreement handed both Mullah Fazil and Noori to the US, Haqyar said.
The two are very important personalities for the Taliban, who wanted them to be part of the peace talks with the US, he said.