The start of Intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, which was contingent on the release of the last batch of Taliban prisoners, meant good news for the family of an Indian hostage being held in Afghanistan. Officials in Delhi and Kabul confirmed to The Hindu that Mantu Singh, the last of a group of seven employees of an Indian engineering company who were kidnapped in 2018 , returned to India on Saturday, after being released by the Taliban group holding him.
The other six employees had been released in small batches over the last two years, including two men last month , in exchange for nine Taliban prisoners. Mr. Singh had been held back as the Taliban insisted on the release of other prisoners, a process which was finally completed this week. According to sources, he returned to Delhi by an Air India flight on Saturday, and will travel home to his family including his wife and two children living in Bihar’s Madhepura district.
On Saturday, India participated in the inaugural ceremony of the Intra-Afghan dialogue between representatives of the Afghan government, civil society and the Taliban, with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar addressing the delegates. The government also sent a senior official, MEA point-person for Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran J.P. Singh and a delegation to the inaugural ceremony which was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, a 21-member Taliban delegation and Foreign Ministers of several countries. While Indian officials had witnessed the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement on February 29 this year, also in Doha, this is the first time an Indian Minister has addressed a gathering that includes the Taliban, which India still does not recognise.
Calling for the Intra-Afghanistan negotiations to “preserve” the progress made in the past two decades in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Mr. Jaishankar did not however, mention the Taliban in his speech and said India’s policy on Afghanistan remains consistent.
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“India believes any peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, has to respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and preserve the progress made in the establishment of a democratic Islamic Republic in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Jaishankar over a video link, according to a statement issued by the MEA.
“The interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections of society must be preserved and the issue of violence across the country and its neighbourhood has to be effectively addressed,” he said, highlighting India’s role as a “major development partner”.
“[Mr. Jaishankar] wished for the success of the Intra-Afghan negotiations in delivering to the people of Afghanistan what they have longed for — a peaceful and prosperous future in an independent and sovereign nation,” the MEA statement also said.
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The Intra-Afghan negotiations were a key part of the U.S.-Taliban and U.S.-Afghanistan accords signed earlier this year as part of the Trump administration’s plans for pulling troops out of Afghanistan. According to the agreement, the U.S. would facilitate the talks which were due to begin on March 10, and that the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners while the Taliban would release 1,000 captives the militant group was holding. However, the process was delayed repeatedly, as both sides delayed the release of prisoners, which also meant that three of the Indian engineering team were not released. On August 4, after considerable negotiations by Afghan officials, and the Id ceasefire called by both sides, Prasadi Mahto and Hulas Mahto from Jharkhand were released and returned to India.
In a statement at the time, the MEA had thanked the Afghanistan government for its “constant and unwavering support in securing the release of the Indians”. With Mantu Singh’s return, the Afghanistan government has completed its commitment to bring back all the Indians who had been working on a power project in Afghanistan’s Baglan province, when they were taken at gunpoint by a group of militants in May 2018.
(With inputs from Amarnath Tewary in Patna)