The government decided on Saturday to free a dozen more Taliban ‘non-combatant’ prisoners as a goodwill gesture. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has called for the release of its ‘non-combatant’ prisoners and establishment of a ‘peace zone’ before the second round of face-to-face dialogue.
The decision came three days after the government handed over 19 tribesmen based in South Waziristan Agency, calling them ‘non-combatant Taliban prisoners’. And it came a day after the TTP decided to extend their one-month ceasefire for another six days.
“We’ve decided to release 12 to 13 Taliban as a goodwill gesture,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told journalists following a meeting between the TTP intermediaries and the government’s negotiating committee.
Some of those to be released figured on a list provided by the TTP, he said. The government has already released 19 non-combatants, he added. “The number of released Taliban will be around 30 when the two sides meet for the second round of face-to-face talks,” he added.
On Thursday night, the government publicly admitted that 19 Taliban ‘non-combatant’ prisoners were released. However, Taliban spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid denied on Friday the men had been sought by the TTP or were its members.
Last month, the Taliban handed over a list of 300 people, including women, children, and old men, to the negotiators and demanded the government release them.
Expressing satisfaction over the pace of peace talks, the interior minister said the TTP should also reciprocate and release the prisoners in their captivity. “We’ve asked them for the release of Professor Ajmal [former vice chancellor of Islamia College University], sons of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, some foreigners and public servants,” he added.
This would be the formal start of the release of non-combatant prisoners from both sides, he said. These exchanges are sort of confidence-building measures while the real demands from both sides have yet to be spelled out.
“We’ll send our [negotiating] team with real demands and expect the other side to let us know about their demands when they sit face-to-face for a second meeting next week,” Nisar said. “The government has a one-point agenda: the restoration of peace – but within the ambit of the Constitution.”
He said that both sides were working out the date and venue of the second round of direct talks.
About TTP’s demand for the establishment of a ‘peace zone’, the interior minister clarified that by ‘peace zone’ the Taliban meant a place where they could easily travel and “we have responded to that”.
The TTP chief intermediary, Maulana Samiul Haq, said the second face-to-face meeting between the government negotiators and Taliban Political Shura was expected over the next two to three days.
He said Saturday’s meeting was meant to work out such measures that could help promote an ‘atmosphere of goodwill’. The steps taken by the government reflect its sincerity and more such goodwill gestures would be witnessed in the coming days, he added.
When asked about the ceasefire, Maulana Sami said: “We’ll definitely ask them [Taliban] to extend it. We wish for a permanent ceasefire from both sides so that we [the intermediaries] do not feel the pressure of any deadlines.”
About the government’s call for the release of prisoners, Maulana Sami said that they would ask the TTP to reciprocate and free the prisoners. Asked about the release of ‘combatant prisoners’, he said, “This issue, as it happens everywhere in the world, will come up for discussion in the final stage of talks.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2014.