Australian academic Tim Weeks has been released by the Taliban, along with his American colleague Kevin King, three years after they were abducted in Afghanistan.
The release of Mr Weeks, 50, and Mr King, 63, both professors at the American University in Kabul, comes one week after President Ashraf Ghani announced that Afghanistan would free three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in an apparent swap that he hoped would help jumpstart peace talks.
The two men were handed over to US forces in Afghanistan’s southern Zabul province and flown out in a US helicopter, The Associated Press reports.
Mr Weeks’ father Mervyn was notified of his release in a phone call from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
He told ABC he was very relieved but that he had yet to speak to his son and was unsure of his whereabouts and plans.
A Weeks’ family statement on Tuesday night asking for privacy.
“We are grateful for the efforts of the Australian government in securing Tim’s release,” it read.
“We would like to thank the United States government for the significant role it played in securing Tim’s freedom and acknowledge the important contribution of the government of Afghanistan.”
Afghan officials in Kabul said they would release a statement shortly.
The American University in Kabul said it “shares the relief of the families” of the hostages.
“The AUAF community, our students, faculty and staff, have keenly felt the absence of our two colleagues even as we have continually urged their release over these past three years,” a statement from the university said.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Wednesday said she was pleased to welcome the release of Mr Weeks and his colleague, adding that the family was “extraordinarily relieved, extraordinarily pleased” and “very grateful”.
“I look forward to seeing the time when we are able to welcome him back to Australian shores,” she said, thanking the US and Afghanistan presidents.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also thanked the US government for ending “what has been three years of absolute hell for Tim Weeks”.
“I understand that given the circumstances he is currently in a good condition,” Mr Morrison told Sunrise.
“This has been a great piece of work done in the interests of both of these gentlemen.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham indicated Mr Weeks, from Wagga Wagga in NSW, was in the care of US officials and receiving medical care on Wednesday morning.
Mr King and Mr Weeks were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in the heart of Kabul in August 2016.
They later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that Mr King was in poor health.
Mr Ghani said on Tuesday that the pair’s health had been “deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.
Mr Ghani had first announced the exchange on 12 November, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison north of Kabul would be “conditionally” released.
They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother Sirajuddin is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.
Afghan authorities accuse Anas of being a high-level player in the network. The Taliban has long demanded his release, insisting he is a student.
The other two Taliban prisoners to be released are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.
Mr Ghani had said he hoped the swap would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with the Kabul administration.
Over the past year Washington and the Taliban have been holding direct talks, seeking an agreement that many hoped would pave the way for US troops to begin leaving Afghanistan and for the militants to start negotiations with Kabul.
They were on the verge of a deal when US President Donald Trump scuttled the talks in September, citing Taliban violence.
Most observers agree that a political settlement is the only way towards lasting peace in Afghanistan, and both the US and the Taliban left the door open for talks to resume.
The prisoner swap could indicate a breakthrough of sorts.
The Taliban had included Anas Haqqani’s name in a negotiating team unveiled in February, and the group’s spokesman told AFP at the time that he had been captured by the Americans, and “should be released to better help with the talks”.
Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan said Tuesday that he hoped the release would give a “boost of confidence” on all sides to re-engage with talks.
Islamabad – which denies accusations from Washington and Kabul that it supports the Taliban – has helped facilitate the talks between the US and the insurgents, and Khan suggested Tuesday that it had also played a role in the hostages’ release.
Pakistan “has fully supported & facilitated this release as part of its policy of supporting initiatives for a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict”, he tweeted.