ISLAMABAD - Pakistan will release former Afghan Taliban second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as soon as this month to help advance peace efforts in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan's foreign policy chief said on Tuesday.
Pakistan is under growing pressure to free senior Taliban figures, particularly Baradar, to boost reconciliation efforts, as most NATO combat troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and anxiety grows over the country's security.
"In principle, we have agreed to release him. The timing is being discussed. It should be very soon ... I think within this month," Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, told Reuters.
Baradar's fate is at the heart of Afghanistan's efforts to kick start the stalled peace process and push Pakistan to hand over important Taliban captives who could provide leverage in the negotiations.
Aziz said, however, that Baradar would not be handed over to Afghanistan directly as some in Kabul had hoped, and would instead be released straight into Pakistan.
The Afghan government believes Baradar is more open to dialogue than many of his comrades, but it is not clear whether he would promote peace or war against President Hamid Karzai's Western-backed government after his release.
One of the most ruthless Taliban figures, he was given his nom de guerre of "Baradar", or "brother", by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Aziz said it was important to make sure the released Taliban prisoners had a chance to establish contact with their leadership on the ground to persuade them to be part of peace talks - an idea he said Karzai has agreed to.
"Obviously Karzai wanted him to go to Afghanistan, but we feel that if they are to play a positive role in the reconciliation process then they must do it according to what their own Shura (Council), their own leadership, wants them to do," he said.
"That they can't do unless they are released. ... I think he (Karzai) accepted this point that they should play a constructive role in the peace process."
Aziz's remarks followed last month's trip by Karzai to Pakistan, where he sought the handover of some Afghan insurgents as part of the stalled peace process.
On Saturday, Pakistan freed a group of Taliban in an attempt to improve its troubled relations with Afghanistan, but once again risked angering Kabul by not handing them over directly.
Afghanistan fears that Pakistan is only pretending to support dialogue while its intelligence agencies harbour Taliban leaders to project influence across their shared frontier.
It is also concerned the released Taliban would simply go back to the tribal areas and rejoin the insurgency.
REVIVING PEACE TALKS
Aziz said that was not going to happen, adding that allowing them to establish contacts with their leaders would give more credibility to attempts to revive peace talks.
"We monitor their movements and watch where they go," he said. "We have to allow these released detainees to establish contact with their Shura and then decide where to go."
Pakistan is key to the fate of US and Afghan efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, a challenge gaining urgency as the end of the US combat mission in 2014 draws closer.
But its long-running refusal to hand over Baradar to Afghanistan has been one of the biggest obstacles to peace talks, as mutual suspicions continue to hamper efforts to tackle militancy in one of the world's most explosive regions.