Thousands of delegates from across Afghanistan endorsed releasing the nation's final 400 Taliban prisoners in an effort to encourage the start of peace talks. "The Taliban have said that if the 400 prisoners are released the direct talks between our negotiating team and the Taliban will start three days later," President Ashraf Ghani told the gathering Friday, the New York Times reports. Delegates then debated for two days in often-contentious committee meetings. A staff member tackled a delegate holding a "Giving in to Taliban bullying is treason" sign when she resisted being expelled. In announcing Sunday that he planned to sign the decree, Ghani said, "We faced a choice, and our decision was made easier today." Human rights groups have opposed the release of the prisoners, who had launched attacks on Afghans as well as foreigners, per the BBC.
The US had agreed to the precondition for talks earlier this year; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement to the assembly saying the Taliban had agreed to direct negotiations once the prisoners are free. The Taliban also committed to reducing violence during the peace talks and addressing a permanent cease-fire. On Saturday, the US said it will reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan to less than 5,000 by the end of November. The pandemic also was an issue at the meeting; the full assembly met under one tent. Photos showed few covering their faces, though Ghani wore a mask. The government said that 17 delegates were hospitalized when they tested positive for the coronavirus just before the meeting and that everyone else was cleared. Many delegates, however, said they hadn't been tested. (Read more Afghanistan stories.)