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To encourage peace talks, Pakistan frees eight Taliban

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan said Monday that it had released several prominent Taliban prisoners in an effort to facilitate the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan and help complete the handover of security responsibilities by international forces.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said eight Afghan Taliban prisoners were released Monday, including former justice minister Nooruddin Turabi and Mohammad Azeem, a former guard of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

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It said 18 others were released in November at the request of an Afghan High Peace Council delegation during its visit to Islamabad.

The freed detainees did not include former deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrested in Karachi in 2010. The release of Baradar and other Taliban leaders has been a longstanding demand of President Hamid Karzai’s government, which believes their freedom would help persuade Taliban leaders to join the sluggish peace process.

The release of prisoners reflects Islamabad’s readiness to promote peace in Afghanistan amid concerns that civil war and strife in that nation after the US troop exit scheduled for 2014 would have perilous consequences for Pakistan.

The Karzai government said the next phase of transferring security from NATO to Afghan control will begin in two months and aim to cover nearly 90 percent of the population, the Associated Press reported.

The transition, which began in early 2011, is slated to give Afghan forces full responsibility for security by the end of 2014, when most NATO troops will have withdrawn.

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Misgivings persist about the readiness of Afghan forces, although their numbers have grown rapidly to more than 330,000. They now shoulder most combat operations, while NATO forces, including some 66,000 US troops, are preparing to pull out. The United States intends to keep a residual force in Afghanistan past 2014.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who heads a transition commission, told a news conference that Afghan security forces now are responsible for protecting 75 percent of the population.

‘‘The general assessment is that security is better or the same,’’ Ahmadzai said. The third transition phase began in May and ended Monday. He said that by the end of the fourth phase, the duration of which is open-ended, 87 percent of the people will be protected by Afghan forces.

Targeted for the upcoming transition are 12 provinces, mostly in the north and central regions, as well as a district in the southern province of Helmand, the most violent in the country.

General John R. Allen, commander of foreign forces in the country, called the announcement ‘‘another historic step as [Afghanistan] gets closer to taking full responsibility for security of the entire country.’’

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh said it was a ‘‘significant step toward our shared goal of seeing Afghans fully in charge of their own security by the end of 2014.’’

The Taliban did not immediately comment on Monday’s release of prisoners in Pakistan, and it was unclear whether such efforts would help bring the militants to the negotiating table.

The release marks incremental progress on an issue that has seemed intractable to many in Afghanistan. The Taliban have repeatedly refused to recognize the legitimacy of Karzai’s government.

Despite a recent meeting between Afghan officials and alleged members of the Taliban outside of Paris, officials close to Karzai expressed doubts about the state of negotiations.

Hope remains among Western officials that the conflict can be resolved through political means. But during the most recent iteration of Taliban talks, the Afghan government criticized US officials for taking a lead role in negotiations and violating Afghan sovereignty.

Pakistan has longstanding ties to the Taliban and its support is key, just as its opposition would probably block any progress. The prisoner releases are being viewed as signs Pakistan, long accused of backing militants, was supporting a new push to bring peace to a country with which it shares a long border and tumultuous history.

The Afghan and US governments accuse Islamabad of backing insurgents — an allegation Pakistan denies — and say many militant leaders are hiding in the country.

Part of the reason Pakistan is actively helping the peace process is officials worry that if US troops leave without a plan in place, Afghanistan could deteriorate. After the Soviets left in 1989, many of the militants who had helped defeat that superpower then turned on each other in what played out as a vicious war across the country.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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