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Afghanistan to free 72 'Taliban fighters'

04:41 Fri Jan 10 2014

Afghanistan says it will release scores of alleged Taliban fighters from jail as there was no evidence against them, despite US objections that the men could return to the battlefield as NATO troops withdraw.

The releases are set to further strain US-Afghan relations as pressure mounts for the two countries to sign a long-delayed security deal allowing some American soldiers to stay in the country after 2014.

A meeting chaired by Afghan President Hamid Karzai "ordered the Bagram prisoners' dossier review board to free those prisoners who are innocent and against whom there is no evidence", a statement said.

US General Joseph Dunford, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, had earlier lodged an official objection to the releases, saying it was against an agreement signed when Bagram jail was handed over by the US in March.

Bagram jail was passed to Afghan control after a public stand-off with Karzai, who has depicted the jail as a symbol of Afghanistan's efforts to regain its national sovereignty.

The statement from Karzai's office on Thursday said that of the 88 prisoners at the centre of the dispute, there was no evidence against 45 of them and only circumstantial information against 27.

The remaining 16 will be kept in jail and their cases reviewed.

But US officials say the 88 men were responsible for over 60 NATO coalition and 57 Afghan deaths.

"At least 59 of the 88 cases could be sent directly... for prosecution in an Afghan court," a US official said ahead of Thursday's announcement.

"The remaining 29 cases have significant investigative leads necessitating immediate referral to NDS (intelligence services) for investigation."

Washington and Kabul are edging closer to signing the troubled Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would see several thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan to provide training and assistance after the NATO combat mission ends in December.

Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said the prison releases would not affect US ties, which hit another low in recent months when Karzai made a surprise decision not to sign the BSA promptly despite having vowed to do so.