Pakistan releases senior Taliban commander

Pakistan released its most senior Afghan Taliban detainee Abdul Ghani Baradar on Saturday, a senior official told AFP, a move welcomed by Kabul which hopes it will encourage peace talks with the insurgents.

Baradar, a one-time military chief often described as the militants' former second-in-command, was the most high profile Taliban commander detained in Pakistan.

"Yes Baradar has been released," Omar Hamid, a spokesman for Pakistan's interior ministry told AFP, without elaborating on the circumstances of the release.

Later, the foreign ministry also gave a one-line confirmation.

"Mullah Baradar was released this morning," Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, the spokesman for foreign ministry, told AFP via text message.

He added: "Released in Pakistan. No further details available with me".

The release was welcomed by Afghanistan's High Peace Council (HPC), the body nominated by President Hamid Karzai to try to talk to the militants, who have waged a bloody insurgency since being ousted from power by a US-led invasion in 2001.

"We thank the government of Pakistan that showed goodwill and answered positively to the request of Afghanistan government," Mohammad Esmail Qasimyar, senior member of HPC, told AFP.

"Baradar is someone who has always been eager to join peace negotiations, and we hope he joins peace talks soon. We are optimistic about it, he is still an influential figure, and the Taliban still respect him."

Pakistan's foreign ministry on Friday said that Baradar's release would facilitate Afghanistan's reconciliation process with the Taliban as a NATO combat mission there winds down.

The Taliban opened an office in Doha in June as a precursor to possible talks but it was quickly shut down after Karzai reacted furiously when they put up a flag and plaque as if they were a government-in-exile.

The Taliban's spokesman in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid, said they could not yet confirm Baradar had been freed.

"We only heard through the media that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be released. We have not received any official confirmation about his release," Mujahid told AFP in Kabul.

Scant evidence Taliban releases are working

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

Karzai had 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 Sartaj Aziz, the main adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs had said that Baradar would not be handed over to Kabul, and many believe his release will have little impact on talks.

Indeed, there is scant evidence that the release of any of the Taliban detainees has had a positive effect on peace efforts, and several are understood to have returned to the battlefield.

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.

A Taliban source agreed, telling AFP Baradar had lost influence after so long away and would now be kept as "a simple guy in the network" with no chance of rejoining the Quetta Shura ruling council.

The details of where Baradar will go after being freed are unclear. There has been speculation he could head to Turkey or Saudi Arabia, but the Taliban source said he would probably stay in Karachi, where his family lives.

Washington gave a muted response to news that Baradar was about to be released, with a State Department spokeswoman on Friday refusing to say whether the US had asked Pakistan to keep tabs on Baradar.

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, in 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 detention Baradar was reported to have been the Taliban's second-in-command, the right hand man of the 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.

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.