November 14, 2012 5:19 pm

Pakistan frees Afghan Taliban prisoners

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Pakistan on Wednesday released several Afghan Taliban captives, a gesture meant to help restart on-off reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said.

The Afghan government has long sought access to such prisoners in hopes of establishing a dialogue with the Taliban insurgents who have battled for 11 years to topple the US-backed Afghan government.

”It is a gesture of support for the Afghanistan reconciliation process,” a Pakistani military official said. While the official said more than 10 prisoners were released, another security official put the number at seven or eight. They had been held at different jails around the country.

Whether Islamabad’s gesture to Kabul eases the deep mistrust between the neighbours remains to be seen.

Negotiators for Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US have concluded that political reconciliation is the only viable solution to ending the war. But Taliban leaders have continuously stated their unwillingness to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr Karzai regularly criticises Pakistan for what he calls its support of terrorist attacks and militant operations against Afghan and Nato troops.

But Mr Karzai also recognises that Pakistan can play a key role in brokering any peace pact – ideally before the end of 2014, when the US will pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan, leaving the country more vulnerable than ever to Taliban attacks.

The two Pakistani officials said Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former Taliban second-in-command behind Mullah Mohammed Omar, was not among the prisoners to be released.

Mr Baradar, who was captured in Karachi in 2010, is considered close enough to Omar to hold some sway in efforts to bring peace. Mr Omar broke off talks with US officials earlier this year.

Wednesday’s announcement of the prisoner release came during a visit to Islamabad by an Afghan High Peace Council delegation led by Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former peace envoy and Afghan president who was killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber in 2011.

Kabul blamed Pakistan for dispatching the assassin, an allegation that Pakistan denies.

Reuters news agency, quoting officials of the High Peace Council, identified three of the prisoners to be released as Mullah Nooruddin Toorabi, the former Taliban government justice minister; Mullah Jahangirwal, Mr Omar’s former secretary; and Allahdat Tayab, a former deputy minister.

”We have asked Pakistan to release them because they were the policy makers of the Taliban and close aides to Mullah Omar,” Habibullah Fawzi, a senior member of the Afghan peace team, told Reuters.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years, with strong support from Pakistan’s intelligence services, until the US invasion that toppled the deeply conservative Islamic regime after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.

By agreement with the Washington Post

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