US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks appear in 2017 video

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Australian Timothy Weeks (left) and US citizen Kevin King appeared dishevelled in video in 2017

Afghanistan is to release three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in exchange for two hostages held by the group, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said.

The two hostages, a US citizen and an Australian, were lecturers at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul when they were kidnapped in 2016.

Anas Haqqani, a leading figure in the Haqqani militant group, and two other senior commanders are part of the deal.

It is thought the exchange could lead to progress in national peace talks.

“In order to pave the way for face-to-face negotiations with the Taliban, the government has decided to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for two university professors,” Mr Ghani said in a televised speech.

The hostages involved in the swap are US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks.

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The two professors were ambushed by gunmen and taken from a vehicle while leaving their university in August 2016.

The pair then appeared in a video, released in January 2017, appealing to then US President-elect Donald Trump to agree to a deal to secure their release.

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Ashraf Ghani said the prisoners would be released from Bagram prison

The exact condition of the two men remains unclear, but in his speech Mr Ghani noted “their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.

Announcing the move in a speech, Mr Ghani said the decision to release the prisoners was “very hard and necessary”.

The Afghan government was shut out of peace talks between the US and the Taliban earlier this year.

But President Trump declared that effort “dead” in September, cancelling secret plans to host a Taliban delegation at Camp David in the US.

Afghan forces have had Anas Haqqani in custody since 2014. His older brother, Serajuddin, leads the Haqqani network of fighters and is deputy leader of the Taliban.

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Media captionIs peace with the Taliban possible?


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