KABUL/DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - The United States has handed to Pakistan three prisoners including a senior Taliban militant held in Afghanistan, as Washington rushes to empty its Afghan prison before losing the legal right to detain people there at the end of the year.
U.S. forces captured Latif Mehsud, the former number two commander in Pakistan’s faction of the Taliban, in October 2013, in an operation that angered then Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
Mehsud, a Pakistani, and his two guards were secretly flown to Pakistan, two senior Pakistani security officials told Reuters. The U.S. military confirmed it transferred three prisoners to Pakistan’s custody on Saturday, but would not reveal their identities.
“TTP senior commander Latif Mehsud who was arrested was handed over to Pakistani authorities along with his guards,” one Pakistani security official said. “They reached Islamabad.”
The transfers coincide with a visit by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Afghanistan.
They also follow a spate of U.S. drone strikes against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, and al Qaeda. On Saturday, the Pakistani military killed an al Qaeda commander accused of plotting to bomb the New York subway.
The TTP is separate but allied to the Afghan Taliban. Both work alongside al Qaeda.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the three prisoners had been held at a detention center near Bagram airfield, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.
The facility is believed to house several dozen foreign prisoners who the United States will no longer be allowed to keep in Afghanistan when the mission for the U.S.-led force there ends later this month.
“We’re actually just going through and returning all the third-country nationals detained in Afghanistan to resolve that issue,” a U.S. embassy spokeswoman said.
The quandary over what to do with the detainees held at the prison north of Kabul has rekindled outrage over the U.S. policy of rendition in the early phases of the Afghan war.
The fate of the remaining prisoners was undecided and they could be returned to their home countries, brought into the U.S. legal system or to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, the commander of the detention center told Reuters in September.
Taliban militants fired two rockets into the Bagram base on Saturday, damaging a building and a road, a spokesman for international coalition forces said.
A message on a Taliban-linked Twitter account suggested that Hagel was the target. He was not at Bagram at the time of the attack, a U.S. military spokesman said.
Recognizable by his curly locks and youthful looks, Mehsud was snatched by U.S. forces last year not far from Kabul.
At the time, Karzai’s spokesman told the Washington Post Mehsud was traveling with a convoy of Afghan intelligence officials who wanted to recruit him for peace talks, and that the U.S forcibly removed him.
The arrest enraged Karzai, who saw it as a challenge to Afghan sovereignty. In a statement, the U.S. military said Afghanistan “was not involved” in Saturday’s transfer.
“We are working on gathering information on how this took place,” said Nazifullah Salarzai, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani.
Relations between the two neighbors are rocky because each suspects the other of harboring Taliban insurgents seeking to topple their respective government.
But Ghani’s ascent to power has raised hopes for more cooperation in tackling the insurgency.
In recent weeks, drone strikes and a tribal revolt against the militants have squeezed the Pakistani Taliban in hideouts in Afghanistan’s remote and mountainous east.
In the latest strike, a U.S. drone in Afghanistan’s southern Kunar province killed nine Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat region on Saturday, the Taliban and police said.
Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Kabul, Katharine Houreld in Islamabad and Mohammad Anwar in Asadabad, Afghanistan; Editing by Stephen Powell