KABUL - Afghanistan is to release three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in exchange for two hostages held by the group, President Ashraf Ghani has said.

American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were lecturers at the American University of Afghanistan when they were kidnapped in 2016. Anas Haqqani, a leading figure in the Haqqani militant group, and two other senior commanders are part of the deal.

It is unclear how or when the exchange of prisoners will take place.

In a televised address to the nation, Ashraf Ghani said the government will release Anas Haqqani in exchange for the release of two foreign lecturers of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “We have decided to release three Taliban prisoners from Bagram prison, including Anas Haqqani,” Ghani said.

Anas Haqqani is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, an anti-Soviet leader of Haqqani network who died in 2018. Anas Haqqani’s older brother, Sirajuddin, leads the Haqqani network of fighters and is a deputy leader of the Taliban.

Anas Haqqani was captured alongside another commander, Hafiz Rashid, who is also set for release. The other militant involved in the swap was named as Haji Mali Khan, who is reportedly an uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani. All three were captured in 2014.

Hafiz Rashid and Mali Khan will be handed over to the Taliban political office in Qatar, a Taliban source told Anadolu Agency. The move is seen pivotal in breaking the deadlock in nascent yet fragile peace talks.

Last month, Ghani’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib said US envoy for Afghan peace Zalmay Khalilzad discussed the release of Haqqani with the Afghan president during his latest trip to Kabul and subsequent meetings with the Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar.

“In order to pave the way for face-to-face negotiations with the Taliban, the government has decided to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for two university professors,” Mr Ghani said in a televised speech.

The Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with Ghani’s administration, are yet to respond to the announcement.

The two professors were ambushed by gunmen and taken from a vehicle while leaving their university campus in Kabul in August 2016. The pair then appeared in a video, released in January 2017, appealing to then US President-elect Donald Trump to agree to a deal to secure their release.

The exact condition of the two men remains unclear, but in his speech Ghani noted “their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”. Ghani said the decision to conditionally release the prisoners was “a tough, but important decision” and a “humanitarian gesture”.

A Taliban spokesperson earlier this year said that the movement was determined to obtain Anas Haqqani’s release and named him as a member of a negotiating team that would hold talks with US officials.

Ghani said authorities had been unable to discover where the Taliban were holding the two captive. “Information suggests that their health while being held by the terrorists has deteriorated,” he said.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan during a three-day visit to Washington in July said that he would do his best to help release the American University professors.

A delegation from Pakistan, including the chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was in Kabul to meet Afghan authorities on Monday. A senior official in Islamabad claims the exchange of prisoners was discussed by the delegation. According to Afghan officials, the next round of talks between the Taliban and Afghan representatives is slated for this month in Beijing.

The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Ghani, as President Donald Trump halted talks between the US and the Taliban in September, after a particularly deadly spate of Taliban attacks, including a Kabul suicide bombing that killed a US soldier. Also, the future of Ghani’s government is in doubt as the results from the Sept 28 presidential elections have not been released yet. Preliminary results are expected on Nov 14.

In Tuesday’s address, Ghani added that the Taliban kidnapping of the two American University teachers was not representative of Islamic and Afghan traditions. “We have decided to release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested outside of Afghanistan,” Ghani said, adding that it was meant “to facilitate direct peace negotiations.”

In a statement, the American University of Afghanistan said it welcomed the development and was “encouraged to hear reports of the possible release of our two colleagues, Kevin King and Timothy Weekes.”

Ghani said the release of the teachers was “part of our main demands during the indirect negotiations with the Taliban.”

“We can assure the families of both teachers that we welcome and honour those who come to our country to pursue education,” Ghani said.