Afghanistan urges Pakistan to free Taliban prisoners if it wants peace

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2013 8:19 AM

KABUL (Reuters) - Pakistan could secure peace in Afghanistan by releasing dozens of senior Taliban prisoners to help kick-start the process, the Afghan foreign ministry said on Saturday, in remarks that underscore the issues vexing peace talks in Qatar.

The ministry's statement was a response to comments by the Pakistani foreign ministry on Tuesday, which welcomed the opening of a Taliban office in the Qatari capital of Doha, saying the country stood "ready to continue to facilitate the (peace) process to achieve lasting peace".

Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of playing a double game regarding the 12-year-old war against the Taliban, saying its neighbor makes public pronouncements about peace but allows elements of its military complex to play a spoiling role.

"(If) Pakistan has the sincere determination to support the Afghan peace process ... then the most useful and urgent step would be to release those Afghan Taliban leaders who have been arrested by Pakistani authorities," the Afghan foreign ministry said.

"The release of these prominent Taliban leaders would provide the High Peace Council of Afghanistan with the opportunity to start peace talks with them," it added, referring to a body set up by President Hamid Karzai in 2010 to seek a negotiated end to the 12-year war with a Taliban-led insurgency.

The Taliban opened its Doha office this week amid hopeful signs of movement in a long-stalled peace process.

But the opening ceremony caused a stir, with Taliban envoys raising the Taliban flag and signs proclaiming the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", the name used during their brief rule from 1996 to 2001.

This prompted Karzai to cancel plans for an Afghan peace delegation to travel to Qatar and suspend talks with the United States over a vital security pact in the belief it had failed to ensure the Taliban did not misuse the office.

Afghanistan's main opposition party and alliance of the country's northern leaders, the National Front, also condemned the fanfare over the opening of the Taliban office.

"This is an illegal act, in conflict with international conventions and causes serious damage to the legitimacy of the Afghan political state," they said in a statement on Saturday.

Pakistan is seen as crucial to stability in Afghanistan as most foreign combat troops look to leave the country in 2014, given close political and economic ties and because militant sanctuaries straddle the mountainous border.

Afghanistan has long sought the release of, or at least access to, dozens of senior Taliban officials captured in Pakistan who remain in detention there.

Karzai is known to particularly desire the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's former second in command and a hugely influential figure in the insurgency.

Baradar was the day-to-day commander responsible for leading the Taliban campaign against U.S. and NATO troops, until his capture in 2010 in Karachi by a joint team of CIA and Pakistani intelligence officers.

He was also the right-hand man of reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who gave him the nickname Baradar, or brother.

Afghan officials believe Baradar could play a key role in talks with the insurgents, acting as a go-between with Taliban leaders, including Omar.

(Reporting by Dylan Welch and Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)