Kabul-Thousands of Afghans began a three-day gathering in Kabul on Friday to decide whether to release about 400 Taliban prisoners, including many involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners.

The prisoners’ fate is a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides, which have committed to completing a prisoner exchange before the talks can start. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the release of the detainees, promising help if the nation moves forward on peace efforts.

“We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular,” Pompeo said in a statement before the first session started. “But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.” Kabul has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates, but authorities have balked at freeing a final 400 or so demanded by the Taliban. “The Taliban said if these 400 are released, then within three days direct talks will start,” President Ashraf Ghani said as he opened the loya jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues, at a university hall. “If they are not freed, not only would they continue the war but they would intensify it. But it was not possible to release them without consulting the nation.”

According to an official list of the Taliban prisoners seen by AFP, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, with more than 150 of them on death row. The list also includes a group of 44 insurgents of particular concern to the United States and other countries for their role in “high-profile” attacks. They include five insurgents linked to the 2018 attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners.

A Taliban militant involved in the massive May 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul is also on the list, which includes a former Afghan army officer who killed five French troops and wounded 13 in 2012 in an insider attack. “There are definitely some prisoners that people don’t want released, mostly because they are guilty of having killed coalition troops and nationals,” a Western official familiar with the case told AFP on condition of anonymity. About 3,200 dignitaries are participating in the three-day assembly, Masoom Stanekzai, the head of the organising committee, said.