KABUL, Afghanistan

The Taliban announced the release of 22 captive Afghan soldiers on Saturday as the warring parties launched historic talks in Qatar’s capital Doha.

The group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement that the soldiers were freed in the restive Helmand province as a “goodwill gesture.”

“The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) seeks to accelerate the process of intra-Afghan negotiations, and steps should be taken to create an atmosphere of trust and confidence so the process can reach its desired conclusion and deliver a ‘fully Islamic system in Afghanistan’ and a permanent end to war,” read the statement.

The exchange of Taliban and government prisoners was a condition for the intra-Afghan talks agreed in the US-Taliban peace deal in February.

However, the process was marred by difficulties and led to delays in the landmark intra-Afghan dialogue, which was originally scheduled for March 10.

Meanwhile, clashes continued in various parts of Afghanistan on Saturday.

Officials and local media said at least 14 security personnel were killed in the Logar and Takhar provinces, while five civilians died in Taliban attacks in Helmand and Kunar provinces.

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