Afghanistan will release two senior Taliban commanders and a leader of the Haqqani militant group in exchange for Australian professor Timothy Weeks and American colleague Kevin King, who were kidnapped in 2016.
The government's decision to free Anas Haqqani and two other Taliban commanders in a prisoner swap was taken in the hope of securing direct talks with the Taliban, which has hitherto 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.
Ghani said Anas Haqqani and Taliban commanders Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid were being released. All three were captured in 2014.
The prisoner exchange comes at a time when efforts were being made to revamp peace talks between the United States 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.
Anas Haqqani is the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is second-in-command in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy and leads the Haqqani network, considered to 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.
The Taliban kidnapped King and Weeks in August 2016 from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
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, King and 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.
Subsequently, US officials said American forces had launched a rescue mission to free the two but the captives were not found at the raided location.
Ghani said in his address that authorities had been unable to discover where the Taliban were holding the two captive.
"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 Weeks and 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".
Australian Associated Press