ISLAMABAD, Sept 7: The government announced on Saturday the release of seven more Taliban militants ‘to facilitate’ the troubled Afghan reconciliation process.
A statement by the Foreign Office identified the freed detainees as Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, Said Wali, Abdul Manan, Karim Agha, Sher Afzal, Gul Mohammad and Mohammad Zai.
This is the third batch of Taliban detainees to be released by Islamabad. Twenty-six prisoners were set free in two groups last year. But the process of release of Taliban detainees remained suspended for over eight months after the failed Chequers summit in February chilled bilateral ties.
The seven Taliban figures were described by an official as senior commanders wielding strong influence in the militant group.
Except for Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, brother of Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a brutal commander killed by British forces in Helmand, antecedents of the others could not be verified. Mullah Mansoor had, however, been expelled from the Taliban ranks by Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the militant movement, before he was captured in Balochistan by the Frontier Corps in 2008.
The news of release of Taliban fighters was coldly received in Kabul where authorities downplayed it as a ‘minor step’.
Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi welcomed the release of Taliban prisoners, but said “it is not big news”. In an interview, he reiterated the call for releasing ‘important Taliban prisoners who can help in taking reconciliation forward’.
The release of the prisoners has come on the heels of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Pakistan on Aug 26. He had extended his stay by one day for in-depth discussions with Pakistani leadership on the steps he expected Islamabad to take for reviving the stalemated peace process in his country.
One of his key demands was the release of the Taliban detainees, particularly former deputy chief of the movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.After Mr Karzai’s visit, the Afghan presidency had said in a statement: “The Pakistani side is expected to take specific and practical steps in accordance with the decisions made during these negotiations.”
Islamabad has been reluctant in releasing Mullah Baradar, who has been in captivity since 2010 and is seen as a crucial link for an agreement between the Karzai administration and the Taliban.
Islamabad and Kabul had, at the Chequers Summit, agreed to consult and coordinate future release of Taliban fighters.
The list of seven fighters released now, a security official said, had been shared with Kabul last week. However, there was no response from the Afghan government.
The Pakistani authorities implied Afghan silence as their consent and went ahead with their release.
Pakistan had last year decided in principle to release all Taliban fighters languishing in its custody.
“Only a handful of Taliban militants are left behind,” a senior security official said. Pakistan held some 40 Taliban men, of whom 33 have been released, he added.
Agencies add: A senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council – Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar – welcomed Pakistan’s decision to release the Taliban figures.
“This is a goodwill and trust-building move by Pakistan and we hope the release of these Taliban prisoners could change the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan,” Mr Qasimyar said.
President Karzai wants Islamabad to help open dialogue with the insurgents.
He said Afghanistan expected Pakistan to provide “opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council” — Kabul’s official negotiators — and the Taliban.
In the past, the Afghan leader has identified Taliban havens in Pakistan as the main cause of increased violence in his country.
Afghan officials believe former detainees may talk to the Kabul government, although observers say there is little evidence those hopes have been realised.
DO MORE, INSISTS KABUL: An Afghan foreign ministry official also welcomed the release, but asked Islamabad to do more.
The official said: “We expect additional and more significant steps by Pakistan in the future, steps that Pakistani leaders can easily take if they so decide, including the release of Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban leaders currently in Pakistani jails.”
Both President Karzai and the United States want Pakistan to hand the insurgents directly to the Afghan authorities, but the group of seven Taliban released on Saturday was simply allowed to walk out of their cells into Pakistan.
Asked if they had been handed over to the Afghan authorities or just released in Pakistan, the spokesman for the foreign ministry said: “Just released.”
A Karzai spokeswoman, Adela Roz, declined to comment on the release. The US embassy in Kabul, which has played a mediation role regarding the prisoners, also declined comment.