An Australian teacher kidnapped by the Taliban and held for more than three years is expected to be freed in a prisoner swap.
Timothy Weeks, a 50-year-old teacher from Wagga Wagga, and his American colleague Kevin King were seized from outside the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul in August 2016.
The following year, the Taliban released two videos showing the captives. A January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt.
In the later video, Mr King and Mr Weeks looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16 that year.
Both said they were being treated well but they remained prisoners and appealed to their governments to help set them free.
On Wednesday, the Afghanistan government said it would release to two senior Taliban commanders and militant group leader Anas Haqqani in exchange for Mr Weeks and Mr King.
The government hopes the prisoner swap will help it secure direct talks with the Taliban, which has so far refused to engage with what it calls an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.
“In order to pave the way for a face-to-face negotiations with the Taliban, the government has decided to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for two university professors,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a televised speech.
Mr Ghani said Mr Haqqani and Taliban commanders Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid would be released. All three were captured in 2014.
The prisoner exchange comes amid efforts to resume peace talks between the US and the Taliban.
The Haqqani network has in recent years carried out large-scale militant attack on civilians. It is believed to be based in Pakistan and is part of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Mr Haqqani is the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is second-in-command in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy and leads the Haqqani network. It is considered the deadliest faction of the Afghan Taliban.
A Taliban spokesman earlier this year said that movement was determined to obtain Anas Haqqani’s release and named him as a member of a negotiating team that would hold talks with US officials.
US officials have said previously that it had launched a rescue mission to free Mr King and Mr Weeks but they were not found at the location raided by American forces.
Mr Ghani said in his address that authorities had been unable to learn where the Taliban were holding the pair.
“Information suggests that their health while being held by the terrorists has deteriorated,” he said.
There was no immediate statement from the Taliban or any indication when they would release Mr Weeks and Mr King.
The American University of Afghanistan said it welcomed the development and was “encouraged to hear reports of the possible release of our two colleagues, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks”.
In a statement, it said while the university was not part of any negotiations with the Taliban or government discussions, it continued “to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years”.