ISLAMABAD - JAVAID-UR-RAHMAN and IMRAN MUKHTAR - After a brief haggling in the power quarters, the Interior Ministry Thursday came forward to confirm that the government had recently released 19 non-combatant Taliban prisoners of Mehsud Tribe.
The announcement is expected to salvage the ongoing peace talks, as conflicting reports had started emerging since the expiry of ceasefire on March 31.
Sources said that the political administration of North Waziristan Agency (NWA) would release around 70 more non-combatant prisoners against whom the government had failed to gather concrete, implicating evidence.
The government negotiation committee is optimistic that the government’s intention to release dozens of more Taliban prisoners soon will invigorate the ongoing peace process with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and help secure release of those in Taliban captivity.
At first, some ambiguity prevailed over the news of the release of Taliban prisoners on Thursday evening when a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office rejected the claim of foreign media that the government had released 16 Taliban prisoners. A statement from nowhere else but the PM Office said that the PM had not approved release of any prisoner.
After some time, the Interior Ministry confirmed that some prisoners had been released. On late Thursday evening, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan held a meeting with the prime minister and apprised him about the whole situation. Soon after the meeting, the PM Office withdrew its statement regarding release of prisoners.
The confirmation of prisoners release comes on the heels of a report (a day ago) that the security establishment has told the civilian leadership TTP’s demand of a “free zone” in Waziristan cannot be granted.
Sources said Ch Nisar informed the PM about the agenda of his meeting with both the government and Taliban-nominated peace panels on Friday and the expected reply to some of the demands (or desires as put by the Taliban committee members) of the Taliban Shura.
Meanwhile, when contacted, Coordinator of TTP-nominated panel Maulana Yousuf Shah confirmed the fixing of their meeting with the interior minister and government peace committee on Friday.
To a question, he said that there was tacit understanding between the government and Taliban Shura that even after the expiry of ceasefire deadline on March 31 both sides would observe restraint and they did it.
He was optimistic about the outcome of the peace talks and said that now the peace process would be entering into a decisive phase.
Another member of TTP nominated peace panel Prof Ibrahim was also satisfied with the release of non-combatant prisoners and hoped that this gesture on part of government would auger well for the ongoing peace process.
Also, government negotiation committee member Rustam Shah Mohmand told The Nation: “The release of 19 TTP prisoners is only the first instalment to build trust and more are likely to be freed shortly.”
Considering it as positive development, the former diplomat confidently remarked this move would help pave the way for release of Peshawar’s Islamai College University Vice chancellor Dr Ajmal, and Shahbaz Taseer and Haider Gilani – the sons of late Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and ex-PM Yousaf Raza Gilani respectively.
“Government committee will now be on strong position to demand release of Dr Ajmal and others,” Rustam Shah said. About extension of ceasefire, he was much hopeful that there would be no violation of the truce already in place. “Although TTP has not formally extended date of ceasefire, I am hopeful that it will not be violated.” The TTP had called for release of around 800 prisoners, warning that otherwise the ceasefire could not be extended.
Sharing the agenda of next meeting with TTP Shura, he said that the matter of attacks on polio workers would be an important point in upcoming meeting with TTP Shura. “The meeting should be held without any delay... With other matters, we will discuss attack on polio workers in upcoming meeting, as it could not be discussed in previous meeting due to long list,” Rustam added. An interior ministry spokesman giving details of the 19 non-combatant Taliban prisoners said they had been recently released at three different times and all belonged to Mehsud tribe from South Waziristan in the tribal belt of the country. According to details collected from the ministry, the government released three prisoners on March 21, five on March 25 and 11 non-combatants were released on March 28.
At first, a foreign news agency quoting political agent of South Waziristan said the government had released 16 non-combatant prisoners in a bid to boost up peace dialogue process. A senior official of the ministry said that only non-combatants had been released and it was the policy of the government as well as armed forces that those not found guilty during the interrogation would be released. He said that all had been arrested on suspicion as well as on the basis of intelligence reports.