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Pakistan frees a Taliban chief to aid peace talks

LONDON — Acquiescing to years of Afghan government demands, Pakistan released a senior Taliban commander on Saturday in a bid to help kick-start peace talks in Afghanistan.

News of the release met with a mixed reception in Afghanistan, amid questions about the extent of the freed commander’s influence over the Taliban — or his personal intent toward peace talks.

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The Pakistani Foreign Ministry said it had released the commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founding member of the Afghan Taliban and a former deputy to the movement’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in an effort to “further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process.”

Baradar was captured in a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence in Karachi in 2010, and his detention has been a point of contention among Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States.

Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister, welcomed Baradar’s release as a step toward peace talks between the Afghan government and insurgents.

But a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, declined to comment, saying he was waiting for word from his superiors. “I cannot say anything until I receive something from our superiors,” he said. “I have been trying to get reaction all day.”

The release had been expected for several weeks.

Critics of such releases, who are most vocal in Afghanistan, point out that Baradar has not publicly stated whether he supports peace negotiations, or whether he is willing to play a role in talks.

“We have to be cautious and we shouldn’t be overly optimistic about what is going to happen next,” said Sayed Mohammad Amin Tariq, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council from Badakhshan. “We should now see if Mr. Baradar can really help the peace process or whether he will rejoin the Taliban and fight.”

A spokesman for the High Peace Council, Maulavi Shahzada Shahid, was more upbeat, calling the release “a good sign for the strengthening of the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”

“Now it is Mullah Baradar’s moral obligation, for the sake of peace and stability, he should assist the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government,” Shahid said.

The circumstances of Baradar’s release were unclear, although US officials had privately lobbied for Pakistan to keep Baradar under house arrest. On Friday, a State Department spokeswoman told reporters that it was important that such releases were conducted in a “responsible manner.”

The spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said that Baradar’s release was “a matter of ongoing discussion between Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to promote peace as part of this reconciliation process.”

Asked whether the United States had asked that Pakistan keep an eye on Baradar, she said, “This is a decision for the government of Pakistan.”

Pakistani officials argued that Baradar’s continued detention would anger the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who had called for his release.

Baradar will remain in Pakistan and will be protected by a security detail, intelligence officials in Islamabad said

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