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Alleged Taliban fighters and other militants stand handcuffed while being presented to the media at a police headquarters in Jalalabad on March 6, 2018. Afghan police said over 17 alleged Taliban militants including two Pakistani nationals were arrested during a five-week operation in Nangarhar province. / AFP PHOTO / NOORULLAH SHIRZADA (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)
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CNN —  

The Taliban has released two Western professors who had been held hostage for the past three years in exchange for three high-ranking militants, in a prisoner swap that could pave the way for renewed peace talks.

US citizen Kevin King and Australian citizen Timothy Weeks were forcibly removed from a vehicle while traveling in Kabul in August 2016, according to the FBI. Their release was announced Tuesday by the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), where both men taught.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Taliban said Anas Haqqani – who is the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the group and leader of the Haqqani Network – and two other senior commanders, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Abdul Rasheed, had been freed as part of the deal. The Taliban called the swap a “positive step” towards “good-will and confidence building measures that can aid the peace process.”

Afghanistan last week revealed a plan to “conditionally” release the three high-ranking militants “to pave the way” for the release of the two AUAF professors. In a televised statement, President Ashraf Ghani said the pair’s health had deteriorated during captivity and that the decision to proceed with a prisoner swap had been made in consultation with international partners, including the United States.

In 2017, the Taliban released a video purportedly showing Timothy Weeks (left) and Kevin King (right) asking then President-elect Donald Trump to make a deal for their release.
Taliban
In 2017, the Taliban released a video purportedly showing Timothy Weeks (left) and Kevin King (right) asking then President-elect Donald Trump to make a deal for their release.

The three Taliban figures have since left Afghanistan and have arrived in Qatar, according to Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman for their political office in Doha. “I thank (the) Qatar government for providing assistance in this regard,” Shaheen said on Twitter.

AUAF said in a Tuesday statement that its community “shares the relief of the families of Kevin and Timothy” and is looking forward to “providing all the support we can to Kevin and Tim and their families.”

“We wish to extend our gratitude to all involved in the release of our colleagues,” the university added.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison also expressed his gratitude to the US and Afghan governments for assisting in the release.

“We are profoundly pleased and relieved Australian Tim Weeks & his US colleague, Kevin King, who were held hostage since August 2016, have been released by their kidnappers today in Afghanistan. We convey deep appreciation to the Governments of the United States & Afghanistan,” Morrison tweeted.

“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.”

CNN’s Masoud Popalzai contributed to this report.