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Pakistan to release senior Taliban commander on Saturday


Pakistan will release on Saturday its most senior Afghan Taliban detainee, Abdul Ghani Baradar, a one-time military chief often described as the insurgents' former second-in-command.

"In order to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process, the detained Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, would be released tomorrow," Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

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.

Sartaj Aziz, main adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, had told AFP on Monday that Baradar "will be released this week".

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

Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked Pakistan to help open direct dialogue between his government and the Taliban, who consider Karzai an "American puppet" and have refused to hold discussions with his government.

But Aziz had said that Baradar would not be handed over to Kabul, and analysts agree his release will have little impact on talks.

There has been scant evidence that the release of Taliban detainees has had a positive effect on the stalled peace negotiations, and several prisoners are understood to have returned to the battlefield.

Baradar's influence has also been debated after his years away from the fight.

Baradar 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 Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until a US-led invasion in 2001.

At the time of his arrest Baradar was reported to have been the Taliban's second-in-command, the right hand man of the Afghan Taliban's supreme commander Mullah Omar.

He was the most senior member of the Taliban held after US-led troops invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, bringing down the Islamist regime.

A mid-level Afghan Taliban official told AFP that Baradar's release will not have any effect on current Afghan situation.

"Baradar's (release) won't change anything: he will be just a simple guy with no position in the Taliban network," he said.

Aziz said it would be Baradar's choice where he goes once he is freed.

Pakistan's foreign ministry did not make any statement about Baradar's future, but a Pakistani official and a Taliban source in northwest Pakistan told AFP that Baradar will likely stay at home in Karachi where his family lives.

"He will be kept as a simple guy in the network, who can convey messages from time to time but who will not be able to reintegrate the shura and regain power," the Taliban official said.

Born in 1968 in the southern province of Uruzgan, Abdul Ghani Baradar fought the occupying Soviet forces in the late 1980s before becoming one of the founding members of the Taliban movement.

When the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996 after years of chaotic civil war, the young Baradar was a trusted friend of Omar, and rose to become the movement's top military strategist.

After the fall of the Taliban, senior militants fled across the border to rear bases in Pakistan, where Baradar became a member of the so-called Quetta Shura, the movement's ruling council.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, an analyst and expert in Pakistani tribal affairs, said Baradar's release will have little impact because "he is no longer as important for Taliban as he used to be".

Yusufzai said the Taliban would prefer to watch Baradar for some time before assigning him any role.

Political analyst Talat Masood said the announcement was a "sort of a confidence-building measure between Pakistan and Afghanistan".

"However, this release is not likely to make any significant difference in the negotiating process," he said.