Pakistan releases more Afghan Taliban members: official

Mon Dec 31, 2012 1:03pm EST
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By Katharine Houreld and Mehreen Zahra-Malik

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has freed four Afghan Taliban prisoners, including a former justice minister, a Pakistani government official said on Monday, in the newest sign Islamabad is serious about backing peace efforts in Afghanistan.

Regional power Pakistan is seen as critical to the success of U.S. and Afghan efforts to bring stability to the country, a task gaining urgency as the end of the U.S. combat mission in 2014 draws closer.

Afghanistan has been pressing the strategic U.S. ally to free Taliban members who could help promote reconciliation.

The Taliban figures were close to the movement's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and could help the Kabul government promote peace, a senior Afghan official said.

"Their release will certainly have a positive impact on the mindsets of other senior Taliban, especially on field commanders who took orders from them for years," the official, who is close to reconciliation efforts, told Reuters.

Former Taliban Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, whom Afghan Taliban field commanders said was Mullah Omar's "right-hand man", was among those freed.

The others were a former governor, Mullah Abdul Bari, former deputy communications minister Mullah Allahdad and Mullah Azam, who served as one of Mullah Omar's security guards, a Pakistani foreign ministry official and military sources said.

A Taliban commander said eight prisoners had been released but did not identify them. It was not clear how long the prisoners had been held nor on what charges. Pakistan, which has long been accused of backing Afghan insurgent groups, has freed several mid-level Taliban members in recent weeks.   Continued...