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Islamabad (AFP) Nov 15, 2012
Pakistan has agreed to release several members of the Afghan Taliban held in its prisons to facilitate peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government, officials said Wednesday.
The move, which came as the Pakistan government held talks with Afghanistan's High Peace Council in Islamabad, could mark a breakthrough in stalled peace negotiations before the withdrawal of US-led NATO troops by the end of 2014.
Support from Pakistan, which backed the Taliban regime that held power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001, is seen as crucial to peace in Afghanistan after the departure of NATO combat forces.
"Pakistan has promised to the delegation its full cooperation to Afghanistan's peace process," an Afghan official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"That includes the release of some of the Taliban leaders from Pakistani jails who could play a role in the process."
Asked whether this would include former Taliban justice minister Mullah Nooruddin Trabi and other senior Taliban leaders, he said it would but gave no further details.
A senior Pakistani security official said "seven or eight" prisoners had already been released but gave no further details, such as their names, any conditions linked to their release or the date of release.
The High Peace Council and Pakistan's foreign ministry issued a statement late on Wednesday evening confirming the move.
"In support of the peace and reconciliation process and in response to the requests of the Afghan government/HPC, a number of Taliban detainees are being released," the statement said.
There was no word on whether Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a powerful Taliban military chief who has been described as the insurgents' second in command, would be freed. He was arrested in Karachi in 2010.
The joint statement said Kabul and Islamabad would work to have potential Taliban negotiators removed from the UN sanctions blacklist and cooperate with the United States to "facilitate" safe passage for negotiators.
Afghan-Pakistani talks were derailed more than a year ago amid a welter of accusations when then-peace council leader Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber in Kabul.
Afghan officials accused Pakistan of involvement in the killing, while Islamabad blamed Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.
Suspicion and mistrust have long dogged ties between the two neighbours. Kabul has accused Pakistan of supporting Taliban Islamists in their 11-year insurgency against the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
Pakistani analyst Hasan Askari said the move marked a change in Islamabad's policy and showed willingness to be more flexible than in the past.
"But this does not mean that it will be easy for the Afghans to initiate the dialogue, because we are not sure of the capacity of the released Taliban leadership to pursue the dialogue," he told AFP.
"We are also not sure how much political clout the released Taliban have with the Taliban hierarchy, because the general pattern in such organisations is that if some activist is detained somewhere, he may be deleted from the hierarchy."
Preliminary contacts between the United States and the Taliban in Doha were broken off in March when the militants failed to secure the release of five of their comrades held in Guantanamo Bay.
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