American Kevin King, Australian Timothy Weeks released by Taliban in prisoner swap

Credit: EL-EMARA Taliban via AP, File

Credit: EL-EMARA Taliban via AP, File

An American and an Australian who have been held hostage by the Taliban since 2016 were freed Tuesday in exchange for the release of three top figures in the militant group, according to multiple reports.

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American Kevin King, 63, and Australian Timothy Weeks, 50, were released to U.S. forces in southern Zabul province, according to The Associated Press. A U.S. helicopter transported them Tuesday from Zabul's New Bahar district, a region largely under Taliban control.

Their freedom came hours after the Afghan government freed three Taliban prisoners and sent them to Qatar. They included Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also leads the Haqqani network. The other two were Hajji Malik Khan, an uncle of Haqqani and a Haqqani lieutenant, Hafiz Abdul Rashid.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the exchange last week as part of an effort to restart peace talks aimed at ending the nation's 18-year war after talks broke down in September, according to the Washington Post. The newspaper noted that the exchange was delayed for several days, although the reason for the delay was not immediately clear.

In a statement obtained by the Post, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the exchange made good progress toward building goodwill and aiding in moving the peace process forward.

Weeks and King were abducted at gunpoint in August 2016 outside the American University in Kabul, where they both worked as English professors, according to The Guardian and BBC News. In 2017, several months after their abduction, the Taliban released two videos showing the captives. A January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt. In the later video, King and Weeks looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16 that year.

Both said they are being treated well by the Taliban but that they remained prisoners and appealed to their governments to help set them free. It was impossible to know whether they were forced to speak.

Days later, U.S. Navy SEALs launched a raid to free them from a hideout in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, however, the men had been moved hours earlier, according to The Guardian.

in October 2017, the Taliban released a statement claiming that King had a "dangerous heart and kidney disease," according to The Guardian.

“We have tried to treat him from time to time, but we do not have medical facilities as we are in a war situation,” the Taliban statement said, according to the newspaper.

It was not clear in the immediate aftermath of the exchange what condition the men were in. Ghani said last week that the health of both men "has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists," according to BBC News.

In a statement obtained by the AP, King's family said he was getting needed medical care before being reunited with his family. According to The Guardian, King is from Pennsylvania. Weeks is from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, Australia.

"We are so happy to hear that my brother has been freed and is on his way home to us," King's sister, Stephanie Miller, said in a statement , obtained by the AP. "This has been a long and painful ordeal for our entire family, and his safe return has been our highest priority. We appreciate the support we have received and ask for privacy as we await Kevin's safe return."

In a statement released Tuesday by the U.S. State Department, officials said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Ghani on Monday that the United States was "reiterated U.S. support for President Ghani’s decision and committed to work closely together to address violence if the President’s decision does not produce the intended results."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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