Pakistan to free former Taliban second-in-command this month
ISLAMABAD - Reuters
Newly elected Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain (L) meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the presidential palace in Islamabad. AFP photoPakistan plans to free former Afghan Taliban second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, this month to help advance peace efforts in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan's foreign policy chief said on Tuesday.
The United States and Afghanistan have long pressed Pakistan to free Baradar and other senior Taliban figures who could be used to tempt moderate Taliban leaders to the negotiating table and transform the insurgency into a political movement.
"In principle, we have agreed to release him. The timing is being discussed. It should be very soon ... I think within this month," Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, told Reuters in an interview.
Baradar's fate is at the heart of Afghanistan's efforts to kick-start the stalled peace process as most NATO combat troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and anxiety grows over the country's security.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has spent years calling for his release because he believes Baradar is more open to dialogue than many of his comrades.
Until being captured in Pakistan in 2010, Baradar was a close friend of the group's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar who gave him his nom de guerre, "Baradar" or "brother".
He was also the main day-to-day commander responsible for leading the Taliban campaign against U.S. and NATO troops, plotting suicide bombings and other attacks.
Afghans hope he could act as a go-between with Taliban leaders including Omar but some have doubts over how much clout Baradar still has in the Taliban circles, and indeed how keen he would be to promote peace.
Aziz said, however, that Baradar would not be handed over to Afghanistan directly as some in Kabul had hoped, and would instead be released straight into Pakistan.
He said it was important to make sure the released Taliban prisoners had a chance to establish contact with their leadership on the ground to persuade them to be part of peace talks - an idea he said Karzai had agreed to.
"Obviously Karzai wanted him to go to Afghanistan, but we feel that if they are to play a positive role in the reconciliation process then they must do it according to what their own Shura (Council), their own leadership, wants them to do," Aziz said.
"That they can't do unless they are released. ... I think he (Karzai) accepted this point that they should play a constructive role in the peace process."
Afghanistan welcomed the move. "The issue of Mullah Baradar is very important to us because his release will help the Afghan peace process," said Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters: "We hope that his imprisonment is over".