Pakistan sets date for Taliban prisoner release

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By SEBASTIAN ABBOT, Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan said it will release its highest-ranking Afghan Taliban prisoner on Saturday to help jumpstart the struggling peace process.

The Afghan government has long demanded that Pakistan release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's former deputy leader who was arrested in a joint raid with the CIA in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010.

Pakistan's national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said earlier this week that the government had decided to release Baradar, but did not provide a specific date.

The Foreign Ministry sent a statement to reporters Friday saying the Taliban prisoner would be released the next day "to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process," without giving more details.

Pakistan has released at least 33 Taliban prisoners over the last year at the Afghan government's request in an attempt to boost peace negotiations between the insurgents and Kabul.

But there is no sign that the previous releases have helped peace talks, and some of the prisoners are believed to have returned to the fight against the Afghan government. The U.S. is reluctant to see Baradar released, believing he would also return to the battlefield.

Afghanistan has in the past called on Pakistan to release Taliban prisoners into its custody. But they have instead been set free in Pakistan, and it was likely the same would happen with Baradar.

Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai has welcomed Pakistan's decision to free Baradar but he said he must be "accessible, secure and with a known address" if he remains in Pakistan.

The circumstances surrounding Baradar's arrest in Karachi were murky. Afghan officials said at the time that he was holding secret peace talks with the Afghan government and accused Pakistan of arresting him to sabotage or gain control of the process. Others said the U.S. was the driving force behind his arrest.

Pakistan is a key player in Afghan peace talks because of its historical ties to the Taliban. Islamabad helped the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan in 1996 and is widely believed to have maintained ties with the group, despite official denials.

But there is also significant distrust between the two, and Pakistan has arrested dozens of Taliban militants in the years following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — possibly to hold as bargaining chips.

The most recent attempt to push forward peace negotiations foundered in June in the Qatari capital of Doha. The Afghan president pulled the plug on the talks even before they began because he was angered that the group marked the opening of its Doha political office with the flag, anthem and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the group's name when they ruled the country.

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