The Taliban has freed two Western hostages Tuesday, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, after holding them hostage for more than three years, a U.S. official and the prime minister of Pakistan said Tuesday.

Kevin King, 63, from the United States, and Timothy Weeks, 50, from Australia, were professors at American University of Afghanistan who were abducted at gunpoint by the Haqqani Network in Kabul in August 2016.

In accordance with a deal announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last week, the professors were freed in exchange for the release of Taliban members Anas Haqqani, Hafiz Rasheed, and Mali Khan. The three Haqqani Network commanders who were captured outside of Afghanistan in 2014. The prisoner swap was described by President Ghani as a gesture to restart peace talks.

On Monday, President Ghani spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, in two separate calls, to “review the steps necessary to release three Haqqani prisoners” and they agreed that “a ceasefire and/or reduction of violence was necessary to begin intra-Afghan negotiations,” the Presidential Palace said in a series of tweets.

“We appreciate steps taken by all involved to make it possible,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said via Twitter. “As part of the international community working to bring peace and end the suffering of the Afghan people, Pakistan has fully supported and facilitated this release as part of its policy of supporting initiatives for a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict.”

The American University of Afghanistan welcomed the news soon after the announcement. “The AUAF community shares the relief of the families of Kevin and Timothy, and we look forward to providing all the support we can to Kevin and Tim and their families,” the university said in a statement.

King was suffering from “serious” and “multiple” health issues, according to a Taliban leader in Zabul. “The American teacher was having some serious health problems that we handed him over to the U.S. and Afghan officials.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the professors’ release too. “Tim’s family has asked for privacy. They have asked the Australian Government to convey their relief that their long ordeal is over, and their gratitude to all those who have contributed to Tim’s safe return,” he said on Twitter.

The prisoner exchange raises hopes that negotiations between the United States and the Taliban may restart after President Donald Trump pulled the plug on a potential deal to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from the country, ending America’s longest war. Negotiations broke down on September 7th, and it remains unclear if and when they will start again.

“These actions are a step forward in good-will and confidence building measures that can aid the peace process,” the Taliban said in a statement Tuesday.

Sources: TOLOnews 11/19/19; NBC News 11/19/19

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