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Pakistan freeing Afghan Taliban 'to give peace a chance'

15 November, 2012

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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan began releasing some Afghan Taliban prisoners who the Kabul government believes could help in reconciliation efforts, an official said on Wednesday, the clearest sign that Islamabad will support the troubled Afghan peace process.

Afghan officials, hopeful that direct contact with Taliban commanders could give them leverage in any peace talks, have long urged Pakistan for access to prisoners. The task of energising the Afghan peace process is gaining urgency as NATO combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. Some Afghans fear the country could face civil war or another Taliban takeover if insurgents are not brought into a serious peace process before then.

An Afghan official said some Taliban captives had been released but Islamabad and Kabul were at odds over how many would be freed. Earlier, Abdul Hamid Mubarez, a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, visiting Islamabad, told Reuters: "Pakistan has sent us a very strong message and Pakistan has agreed in principle to start releasing prisoners from today."

It is not clear why Pakistan made the gesture at this time but it has come under mounting pressure to support US efforts to stabilise Afghanistan as the endgame nears. A senior Pakistani army official said it had not yet been decided if the former Afghan Taliban second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, would be released. Afghan officials have identified him as a figure who may command enough respect to persuade the Taliban to pursue peace after more than a decade of fighting US-led NATO and Afghan forces.

In August, senior officials from both countries said Afghan officials have held secret talks with Baradar. The decision to release the prisoners was a major achievement for the Afghan High Peace Council, which has been struggling to ease mistrust between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

"We have asked Pakistan to release them because they were the policymakers of the Taliban and close aides to Mullah Omar," said Habibullah Fawzi, a senior member of the Afghan peace team. Their release could encourage a number of Taliban commanders and fighters to join peace efforts, he said.

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