Pakistan to release senior Afghan Taliban prisoner

Pakistan will release its most senior Afghan Taliban detainee, Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former military chief often described as the insurgents' ex-second in command, officials said Tuesday.

The Afghan government has long demanded that Islamabad free Baradar, whose arrest in January 2010 saw Pakistan accused of sabotaging initiatives to bring peace in war-torn Afghanistan.

He was arrested in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi reportedly in a secret raid by CIA and Pakistani agents, an operation that was described as a huge blow to the group.

His release would bring to 34 the number of Taliban detainees that Pakistan has released since last year in what Afghan officials hope can encourage peace talks with the insurgents.

"Pakistan has decided in principle to release Mullah Baradar," Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the prime minister on national security and foreign affairs, told AFP.

Aziz said Baradar would not be handed over to the government in Afghanistan, but was "likely to be released this month".

Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry confirmed to AFP that the decision had been taken to release Baradar "at an appropriate time".

The announcement came two weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Pakistan for talks with new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at which Baradar's release was again requested.

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

Several prisoners are also understood to have returned to the battlefield.

Analysts say that Pakistan may be able to facilitate Taliban peace talks and help with logistics, but it cannot force the insurgents to the negotiating table against their will.

The Taliban brand Karzai and his government puppets of the United States and have publicly snubbed any prospect of talks.

Born in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, Baradar fought in the war -- covertly backed by the United States and Pakistan -- to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

When the Taliban rose to power in 1996, Baradar's friendship with supreme leader Mullah Omar made him deputy defence minister.

After the Taliban government was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001, hundreds of Taliban hardliners are believed to have fled over the border to Pakistan.

Although little is known about Baradar's more recent activity, Interpol has said that Baradar had been a member of the Taliban's so-called Quetta Shura leadership since May 2007.

At the time of his arrest, Baradar was reported to have been second or third-in-command of the Quetta Shura.

The New York Times -- which broke the story of Baradar's arrest -- said the commander was a close associate of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks.

In early 2010, the Afghan government and the former UN envoy to Afghanistan said his detention had adversely affected efforts to talk to the insurgents.