By Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s main political rival said on Thursday the two sides were holding talks over a disputed presidential election result but that if no solution could be found, he would hold a parallel inauguration next week.
The dispute between Ghani and his longtime political foe, Abdullah Abdullah, is threatening to hamper the next steps toward a peace deal as the United States attempts to usher the government toward talks with the Taliban after the signing of a U.S. troop withdrawal deal on Saturday.
“Today, delegations from both sides had a meeting for finding a solution to the current (election) crisis, meetings may continue,” Abdullah said in an interview hosted by local broadcaster Tolo News.
Ghani is set to hold his inauguration on Monday, and Abdullah has said he will hold a parallel ceremony on the same day.
“We still have hope to solve the (election) crisis, if not we will have an inauguration ceremony,” said Abdullah.
Ghani and Abdullah are old rivals who both held roles in the previous government under a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement. A former foreign minister, Abdullah held the specially created post of chief executive in the outgoing government.
The Election Commission last month announced that Ghani won September’s presidential election but Abdullah has also proclaimed himself winner.
Afghan government push-back to the Taliban’s prisoner release demand, included in its agreement with the United States, also threatens the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to Afghanistan.
“Something should be done for sure to release prisoners from both sides as part of a peace deal,” Abdullah told Tolo News. “The release of 5,000 prisoners should be part of a peace package.”
He did not elaborate on whether the release needed to take place before or after talks with the Taliban but said that so called intra-Afghan talks should take place “without preconditions”.
The Taliban have said the release of 5,000 prisoners is a pre-condition to talks.
Abdullah’s comments appeared to be a softening of his spokesman’s comments to Reuters earlier in the day that the prisoner release should take place “without delay” before talks with the Taliban get under way.
A spokesman for Ghani did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday but a senior government official reiterated that the release was neither practical nor a prerequisite for the intra-Afghan talks.
“Over the years, we’ve released hundreds of insurgents as a gesture of good faith but it didn’t help with peace,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
“The government has to be sure the release guarantees peace negotiations with the Taliban,” the official said.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has led the negotiations with the Taliban, had asked both sides to delay their inaugurations, Abdullah’s spokesman told Reuters, but the senior government official said there was no plans to delay Ghani’s.
(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, additional reporting by Hamid Shahlizi; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Macfie)