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Pakistan frees Taliban prisoners in attempt to boost Afghan reconciliation talks

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (right) and Chairman of Afghanistan's High Peace Council Salahuddin Rabbani stand before their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad Nov. 12, 2012. (MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS)

Pakistan on Wednesday released several Afghan Taliban captives, a gesture meant to nudge along on-again, off-again reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said.

The Afghan government has long sought access to such prisoners in hopes of establishing a dialogue with the Taliban insurgents who have battled for 11 years to topple the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“It is a gesture of support for the Afghanistan reconciliation process,” a Pakistani military official said. Reports varied on the number of Taliban prisoners set free from jails around the country, but the Foreign Ministry said there were eight.

Whether Islamabad’s gesture to Kabul eases the deep mistrust between the neighboring nations remains to be seen. It came during a four-day visit by an Afghan High Peace Council delegation to the Pakistani capital, where on Wednesday both sides urged that safe passage be provided to members of the Taliban or other armed opposition groups who come to the table.

Negotiators for Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States have concluded that political reconciliation is the only viable path to ending the war. But Taliban leaders have continually affirmed their unwillingness to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai regularly criticizes Pakistan for what he calls its support of terrorist attacks and militant operations against Afghan and NATO troops. But he also recognizes that Pakistan can play a key role in brokering any peace pact — ideally before the end of 2014, when the United States is to pull its last combat troops out of Afghanistan, leaving the country more vulnerable than ever to Taliban assaults.

Pakistani officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to be named as spokesmen, said that Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former Taliban second-in-command behind Mohammad Omar, was not among the prisoners released.

Baradar, who was captured in Karachi in 2010, is considered close enough to Omar to hold some sway in efforts to bring peace. Omar broke off talks with U.S. officials earlier this year.

The visiting Afghan delegation was led by Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former peace envoy and Afghan president who was killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber in 2011. Kabul blamed Pakistan for dispatching the assassin, an allegation that Pakistan denied.

“Maligning each other through media leaves little space for serious dialogue,” the peace council and Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a joint statement Wednesday evening. It called for an end to the “blame game” played by both countries.

The Reuters news agency, quoting officials of the peace council, identified three of the prisoners to be released as Mullah Nooruddin Toorabi, the former Taliban government justice minister; Mullah Jahangirwal, Omar’s former secretary; and Allahdat Tayab, a former deputy minister.

“We have asked Pakistan to release them because they were the policymakers of the Taliban and close aides to Mullah Omar,” Habibullah Fawzi, a senior member of the Afghan peace team, told Reuters.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years, with strong support from Pakistan’s intelligence services, until U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the deeply conservative Islamic government after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.

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