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Taliban proposes prisoner exchange

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:33 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban proposed a deal in which they would free a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their most senior operatives at Guantanamo Bay, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai eased his opposition on Thursday to joining planned peace talks.

The idea of releasing these Taliban prisoners has been controversial. U.S. negotiators hope they would join the peace process but fear they might simply return to the battlefield, and Karzai once scuttled a similar deal partly because he believed the Americans were usurping his authority.

The proposal to trade Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the Taliban detainees was made by senior Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in response to a question during a phone interview with The Associated Press from the militants' 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 starting peace talks with the United States, said Suhail, a top Taliban figure who served as first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, before the Taliban government's ouster in 2001.

“First has to be the release of detainees,” Suhail said on 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.”

The Obama administration was noncommittal about the proposal, which it said it had expected the Taliban to make.

“We've been very clear on our feelings about Sgt. Bergdahl and the need for him to be released,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “We have not made a decision to ... transfer any Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, but we anticipate, as I've said, that the Taliban will all raise this issue.”

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

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

Donna Thibedeau-Eddy, who has spent the past few days at the Idaho home of the soldier's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said the family was hopeful.

“I was with his mom and dad this morning when they got the news of the exchange offer. They were ecstatic,” said Thibedeau-Eddy.

While there have been talks before, Bob Bergdahl is putting more faith and hope into the latest developments because it appears the Taliban are taking the initiative, Thibedeau-Eddy said.

The reconciliation process with the Taliban — considered by most as the only way to end the nearly 12-year war — has been a long and bumpy one.

The United States began secret talks with the militants more than two years ago in off-and-on discussions that lasted for several months.

The two sides discussed prisoner exchanges, and for a brief time, it appeared that the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be released and sent to Qatar.

But Karzai, furious that he had not been told of the talks in advance, demanded that the Taliban operatives be returned to Afghanistan rather than Qatar.

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