By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban, in a tentative sign of progress for the United States-brokered peace deal.
The list announced late on Thursday by the country's State Ministry of Peace was headed by Masoom Stanekzai, a former National Directorate of Security chief and supporter of President Ashraf Ghani, and included politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Five members were women.
It was not immediately clear whether Ghani's political rival Abdullah Abdullah would endorse the team selected, which diplomats have said would be vital given his camp's strong influence in much of the country's north and west.
The development was endorsed by U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who congratulated Afghan political and civil society leaders.
"They've forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban...This consensus is a meaningful step that moves the parties significantly closer to intra-Afghan negotiations," he said, he said, referring to the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as part of a process aimed at ending America's longest war and bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Abdullah's spokesman said he could neither confirm or deny whether Abdullah supported the team.
Two sources - one a diplomat in Kabul briefed on the matter and another a member of Abdullah's team - speaking on condition of anonymity, said negotiations had been taking place and he was likely to support the delegation.
The United States signed a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February, but progress on moving to negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government has been delayed, in part by the political feud between Ghani and Abdullah, who both claimed to be Afghanistan's rightful leader following September's disputed election.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to mediate between the two men to create an "inclusive" government during a day-long visit to Kabul on Monday, and announced a $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to Afghanistan, which he said could be reversed.
PEACE TALKS DURING PANDEMIC
The global coronavirus pandemic was adding challenges to the peace process and U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has said created a need for urgency.
The Taliban had demanded the unconditional release of 5,000 prisoners before starting talks with the government. Ghani countered with an offer to free 1,500 prisoners, and has since said he would release 100 at the end of March due to humanitarian concerns stemming from the coronavirus.
The arrangement was struck in a talks between Taliban officials in Doha and government officials in Kabul, held over Skype because of travel restrictions.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said 15 Taliban officials would soon travel to Kabul to verify a list of prisoners.
Officials said on Friday that movement would be heavily restricted in the capital from Saturday to curb the risk of coronavirus, and measures would include the closure of most stores and offices, other than essential services such as healthcare and food shops.
The Taliban, which controls or contests about half the country, said it had set up around 100 health teams to spread awareness on measures such as hand washing, but were struggling in some rural areas to convince people of the seriousness of the virus, Mujahid said.
Afghanistan so far has more than 90 confirmed cases and there are fears the virus is spreading from thousands crossing the border each day from hard-hit neighbour Iran.
Health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar welcomed the setting up of health teams and said the health ministry was ready to help.
"We say that we are ready to assist the Taliban if they contact us," he said.
(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi and Charlotte Greenfield; additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)