By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has freed at least sixteen Taliban prisoners with the approval of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, officials said on Thursday, in a move designed to invigorate a shaky peace process with the militant group.
The Pakistani Taliban called a one-month ceasefire on March 1 but said this week they would not extend the truce because the government was not serious about meeting their demands.
The demands include releasing 800 prisoners the insurgent group describes as innocent family members and withdrawing the army from parts of the semi-autonomous tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The political agent of South Waziristan, the highest government official in the northwestern tribal region, confirmed
the government has started releasing non-combatant prisoners to boost reconciliation efforts.
"South Waziristan's political administration released sixteen men on April 1," Islam Zeb told Reuters.
"They are not major commanders. They are innocent tribals who were arrested during different search operations in South Waziristan in the last two to three years."
Zeb said all the released prisoners belonged to the Mehsud tribe, a major Pashtun tribe living in South Waziristan. Another 100 prisoners on the Taliban's list were being processed and would be released in the next few days, he added.
Taliban negotiators were not immediately available to comment on the releases.
Intelligence officials confirmed that the prisoners were brought to the Zari Noor army camp in Wana, the region's main town.
The enclave on the Afghan border was once the epicenter of a spreading Taliban insurgency and the site of a major military offensive in 2009 that displaced half a million people.
Security officials said once at Wana, the prisoners were handed over to office of the political agent, who then released them to the Taliban.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif personally authorized the releases, a source in his office said - an apparent sign the premier is giving in to pressure from the Pakistan Taliban and resisting those in the military arguing for tougher military action against militant strongholds.
"But they (released prisoners) are all non-combatant civilians. They are not sensitive figures," the prime minister's aide said. "Maybe some of them are Taliban sympathizers but they are not commanders and have no role in the talks process."
"Releasing them will create goodwill and we hope they (Taliban) will reciprocate," he added.
Sharif, who took power last year promising to strike a negotiated peace with the Taliban, has been trying to engage the militants, who want to topple his government and enforce severe Islamic law.
But talks broke down last month, when a Taliban wing operating in the Mohmand Pashtun tribal region said it had executed 23 soldiers in revenge for the killing of its fighters by the security forces.
Islamabad then refused to hold further talks until the Taliban announced a ceasefire on March 1.
The second round of peace talks now hangs in the balance after the Taliban announced on Wednesday they would not extend the ceasefire and warned that attacks would begin again in Pakistan.
Pakistan was not entirely peaceful during the ceasefire either. A militant group calling itself Ahrar-ul-Hind launched a rare attack on a court in Islamabad last month, killing 11, including a judge.
Pakistan's powerful military, which has the upper hand in policy-making and a free hand on internal security, has always been skeptical about talks.
A senior army official said the release of Taliban prisoners involved in attacks on civilians and the army was "impossible".
"There is no way these hardened militants will be freed," said the official who declined to be identified.
"Neither will the army pull out of the tribal areas. What are the Taliban asking: that we hand them parts of the country? That's not going to happen. No chance."
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Karachi and Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)