Islamabad: Pakistani authorities on Wednesday freed eight to 10 Afghan Taliban prisoners at the request of peace negotiators to help boost the troubled peace and reconciliation process in war-torn Afghanistan, official sources said.
The prisoners, all junior cadres of the Taliban, were freed in response to a request from Afghan High Peace Council chief Salahuddin Rabbani, who arrived in Islamabad with a delegation on Monday for talks with Pakistan’s top civil and military leadership.
The exact number of prisoners freed could not be ascertained. Some sources said eight prisoners had been released while others put the figure at 10.
Sources said the release was intended to signal Pakistan`s desire to play a positive role in the reconciliation process that has made little headway since it began almost four years ago.
A joint statement issued at the conclusion of Rabbani`s visit merely said a number of Taliban detainees are being released in support of the reconciliation process. The two sides called on the Taliban and other armed groups to sever all links with al Qaeda and other international terror networks.
The Afghan Taliban`s former deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was not among the released prisoners. He was captured by Pakistani security forces in Karachi in 2010.
Several reports have suggested that Baradar was arrested as he had initiated peace talks without informing Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence set-up.
The Afghan government has repeatedly asked Pakistan to release Baradar because he is seen as crucial to the reconciliation process.
The joint statement said Pakistan and Afghanistan would work closely with international partners to remove the names of potential negotiators amongst the Taliban and other groups from the UN sanctions list to enable them to participate in talks.
Pakistan has been jockeying for a larger role in Afghanistan in the run-up to the withdrawal of most of the US and foreign troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The US is also pushing for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban.
Islamabad has had ties to the Afghan Taliban since the 1990s and many top militant commanders are based in Pakistani, especially Balochistan province.
The agreement to release the Afghan Taliban prisoners was reached during talks between Pakistani leaders and Salahuddin Rabbani, said Abdul Waheed Mubariz, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council.
The release of the prisoners will benefit Afghanistan and the Taliban as they will begin a normal life and reintegrate into society, Mubariz said. There was substantial progress in the talks between the Afghan council and Pakistani leaders, he said.
"It will also encourage more Taliban to come to the negotiating table, to enter normal life and to join political efforts," he said.
Mubariz said the Taliban can take part in the Afghan election in 2014 and field their candidates. The commitment shown by President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar for the peace process has generated hope, he added.
"Both sides agreed to develop their relations about peace in Afghanistan. They will cooperate. There will be more coordination and more contacts," he said.
Foreign Minister Khar told the Afghan delegation that Pakistan will send a strong message to the Taliban to join negotiations, he said.
However, Afghan officials admitted that "serious differences" had surfaced over a list of Taliban prisoners that Pakistan wanted to release. The Pakistani side handed over a list of some 10 Taliban leaders but the Afghan side sought the release of all prisoners.
The Afghan side handed over a list of 30 to 40 prominent Taliban prisoners believed to be in custody in Pakistan, the officials said. The differences delayed the release of a joint statement and the departure of Rabbani, who was initially scheduled to leave for Kabul at 2 pm Rabbani will now leave for Kabul tomorrow.
An Afghan official, privy to the three-day talks, said there was "100 per cent progress" on the issue of safe passage for Taliban leaders to join peace talks and Pakistan would extend full cooperation.