Pakistan releases seven Taliban prisoners

Pakistan on Saturday announced the release of seven senior Afghan Taliban figures to help the peace process in war-torn neighbour Afghanistan, the foreign ministry said.

The move came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged Pakistan to help arrange peace talks between his government and the Taliban during a visit to Islamabad last week to meet with new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"In order to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process, Pakistan is releasing seven Taliban detainees namely Mansoor Dadullah, Said Wali, Abdul Manan, Karim Agha, Sher Afzal, Gul Muhammad and Muhammad Zai," the foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday.

"These releases are in addition to 26 Taliban detainees released during the last year," it added.

Infuriated by the opening in June of a Taliban office in Qatar, considered a precursor towards talks with US officials, Karzai wants Pakistan to help open dialogue with the insurgents.

He said Afghanistan expected Pakistan to provide "opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council" -- Kabul's official negotiators -- and the Taliban.

In the past, the Afghan leader has identified Taliban havens in Pakistan as the main cause of increased violence in his country.

Analysts doubt whether Pakistan has the influence to force the Taliban to the negotiating table -- and the insurgents have publicly refused all contact with Karzai's government, branding it a US puppet.

Afghan government peace negotiators accompanying Karzai earlier called for the release of the most senior Taliban figure detained in Pakistan, former deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Afghan officials believe former detainees may talk to the Kabul government, although observers say there is little evidence those hopes have been realised.

On Saturday, a senior member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council Mohammad -- Ismail Qasimyar -- welcomed news of the Taliban figures' release.

"This is a goodwill and trust building move by Pakistan and we hope the release of these Taliban prisoners could change the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan," Qasimyar told AFP.

An Afghan foreign ministry official also welcomed the release, but asked Islamabad to do more.

"The Afghan government welcomes the release of these Taliban prisoners, which is a positive but small step by the Pakistani government in support of our peace efforts in Afghanistan," the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

"We expect additional and more significant steps by Pakistan in the future, steps that Pakistani leaders can easily take if they so decide, including the release of Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban leaders currently in Pakistani jails," he added.

Among the latest releases of Afghan prisoners, Dadullah is a senior militant commander who was captured by Pakistani security forces in February 2008 in southwestern Baluchistan province with at least five other rebels.

He had been in charge of operations against NATO and US-led troops in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, and had succeeded his elder brother -- the Taliban's overall military commander Mullah Dadullah -- who was killed in a joint Afghan-NATO operation in southern Afghanistan in May 2007.

The Taliban said in late December that they had sacked Mansoor Dadullah because he disobeyed orders. But a spokesman for the commander denied that he was fired, leading to speculation about infighting among the rebels.

Dadullah was one of five Taliban who were freed in May 2007 in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo. He was later recaptured in Pakistan.

Elements of the Pakistani state are widely accused of funding, controlling and sheltering the Taliban. Islamabad says publicly it will do anything to stop the fighting in Afghanistan.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul said Thursday that fears of a resurgent Taliban when the bulk of Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan next year were overblown.

Around 87,000 US-led NATO troops are to leave Afghanistan next year, putting the country's police and troops in charge of security nationwide.