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Pakistan to release top Afghan Taliban prisoner Baradar

The Pakistani government has said it will release the former second-in-command of the Taliban in another bid to further peace efforts with its Afghan neighbors. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested in 2010.

Pakistan said on Tuesday that it planned to free the former deputy leader of the Islamist group and former rulers of Afghanistan in the near future - possibly this month.

"In principle, we have agreed to release him," Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, told the Reuters news agency in an interview. "The timing is being discussed. It should be very soon … I think within this month."

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested in Karachi in 2010, during a joint Pakistani raid with the CIA. Since then, however, the US has joined the Afghan government in lobbying for his release.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking to shore up security at home ahead of the withdrawal of international troops in 2014, believes Baradar is more open to dialogue than many members of the Afghan Taliban. Karzai's government has sought reconciliation with the Taliban, ousted from government during the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The hope in Kabul is that Baradar, once a close friend of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, might act as an effective broker between past and present Afghan governments.

Testy talks

Pakistani officials also said that Baradar would not be handed to Afghanistan, as Karzai had hoped, but rather released within Pakistan where he could meet with other Taliban officials.

"Obviously, Karzai wanted him to go to Afghanistan, but we feel that if they are to play a positive role in the reconciliation process, then they must do it according to what their own Shura [Council], their own leadership, wants them to do," Aziz told Reuters.

Afghanistan's government said it accepted this decision but urged the government in Islamabad to keep a close eye on Baradar.

"Pakistan's position is not to release him to Afghanistan but to keep him in Pakistan. But our position is that Mullah Baradar must be accessible, secure, with a known address and he must be in the service of the Afghan peace process," Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi said.

Karzai visitied Pakistan last month and appealed for support as he seeks to improve domestic security. Pakistan has released more than 30 Taliban prisoners over the past year in response to requests from Kabul. The two countries' shared border is already porous, with fighting on both sides. Unrest in Afghanistan after the departure of western troops would be likely to have some spillover effect in Pakistan.

No official talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban are currently scheduled. The last, set in the Qatari capital Doha this June, were cancelled by Karzai before they even began. Karzai was angered by the Taliban's decision at the talks' opening ceremony to use the anthem, flag and symbols for what the Taliban called the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" during their time in charge.

msh/ph (AP, Reuters)

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