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Pakistan agrees to free more Afghan Taliban

01 December, 2012

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar shakes hands with her Afghan counterpart Zalmai Rassoul prior to their meeting in Islamabad.
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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday agreed to release another batch of Taliban prisoners in a bid to facilitate peace talks between insurgents and the Afghan government, a joint Foreign Ministry statement said.

The announcement came after talks in Islamabad between visiting Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar. The number of prisoners to be released was not specified but is not thought to include the Taliban's former deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was captured in 2010. A senior Pakistani security official earlier told AFP that "no decision" had been taken on his release.

The joint statement said both sides agreed the "release of more prisoners, facilitating contacts and urging the Taliban to renounce ties to al Qaeda". It was the second high-level delegation to visit Pakistan this month to press for the release of Taliban prisoners in a bid to kickstart peace efforts. Talks two weeks ago between Pakistan and Afghanistan's High Peace Council resulted in the release of nine Taliban.

Afghan officials believe senior Taliban leaders held in Pakistan could help bring militants to the negotiating table, if released from jail, to end over a decade of war ahead of the 2014 pull-out of US-led NATO troops. "I hope that we will continue to implement other concrete measures in a timely manner and push the peace process forward... so that all those who can help advance the peace process go free," Rassoul told reporters after talks with his Pakistani counterpart.

An Afghan official had told AFP ahead of the meetings that Rassoul would ask for the release of further Taliban detainees, including Baradar. But a senior Pakistani security official told AFP that "no decision" had so far been taken on whether to release him. "We have to ascertain how important he can be. Pakistan believes Baradar may not be enjoying the same clout he used to have before being arrested in Karachi two years ago," the official said.

The Taliban, leading an 11-year insurgency since the 2001 US-led invasion, has welcomed the releases, but refuses to negotiate directly with Kabul, calling the government of President Hamid Karzai a US puppet. Preliminary contacts between the US and the Taliban in Doha were broken off in March when the militants failed to secure the release of five of their comrades held at the Guantanamo Bay prison on the US base in Cuba. Support from Pakistan, which backed the 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul, is seen as crucial to peace in Afghanistan after the departure of NATO forces. The joint statement said the two sides also discussed the issue of cross-border incursions and shelling and agreed to have an institutionalised mechanism to address this issue.

Afghanistan and Pakistan blame each other for a number of recent cross-border attacks that have killed dozens of people. Afghanistan shares a disputed and unmarked 2,400-kilometre border with Pakistan, and Taliban and other al Qaeda-linked militants have carved out strongholds on either side.

Pakistan on Friday also handed over draft of Strategic Partnership Agreement to Afghanistan to further enhance bilateral ties between the two important neighbours in the region. The document was shared by Foreign Minister Khar during a meeting with Dr Rassoul. The two countries agreed to operationalise the Joint Commission on Prisoners release for expediting reconciliation process and discouraging violence. They also agreed to hold ulema conference in Afghanistan next month (January). Pakistan announced its participation in the conference.

The two sides also agreed to extend the Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement to Tajikistan in the first phase and then extend it to the other Central Asian countries for enhancement of regional trade. Khar said that both the countries face common challenges of terrorism and narcotics and collective efforts are required to deal with these challenges.


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