ISLAMABAD/KABUL: Pakistan freed a group of Afghan Taliban on Saturday in an attempt to improve its troubled ties with its South Asian neighbour, but risked angering Afghanistan further by not handing them over directly to the Kabul authorities.
The announcement followed last month's trip by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Pakistan, where he sought the handover of some Afghan insurgents as part of the stalled peace process.
Karzai as well as the United States want Pakistan to hand the insurgents directly to the Afghan authorities, but on Saturday, a group of seven Taliban was simply allowed to walk out of their cells into Pakistan.
“In order to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process, Pakistan is releasing seven Taliban detainees,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
A foreign ministry spokesman separately said all seven, including a senior commander called Mansoor Dadullah, were freed on Saturday. The other prisoners are Said Wali, Abdul Manan, Karim Agha, Sher Afzal, Gul Muhammad and Muhammad Zai.
Asked if they had been handed over to the Afghan authorities or were just released in Pakistan, the spokesman said: “Just released.”
Pakistan is said to have backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is seen as a crucial gatekeeper in attempts by the US and Afghan governments to contact insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after the group's 2001 removal.
But Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of playing a double game in its 12-year-old war against Taliban fighters. It says Pakistan, facing a Taliban insurgency of its own, makes pronouncements about peace, but allows elements of its military to play a spoiling role.
Release of a senior commander
Dadullah, who is among the seven released prisoners, is a senior militant commander who was captured by Pakistani security forces in February 2008 in the southwestern Balochistan province with at least five other militants.
Dadullah had been in charge of operations against Nato and US-led troops in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
Dadullah had succeeded his elder brother — the Taliban's overall military commander Mullah Dadullah — who was killed in a joint Afghan-Nato operation in southern Afghanistan in May 2007.
The Taliban said in late December that they had sacked Mansoor Dadullah because he disobeyed orders. But a spokesman for the commander denied that he was fired, leading to speculation about infighting among the militants.
Dadullah was one of five Taliban who were freed in May 2007 in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo.