Pakistan will release another 13 Taliban prisoners as a “goodwill gesture” to help ongoing peace talks with militants, the interior minister said Saturday.
The announcement came after the Pakistani Taliban on Friday extended a ceasefire by six days, stating they were doing so to allow the government more time to meet their demands of releasing “non-combatant” prisoners and pulling back soldiers.
“The government has decided to release 13 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters after meeting Taliban and government peace committees.
He urged the Islamists to reciprocate, calling for the release of a senior academic -- Professor Mohammad Ajmal -- as well the sons of slain former Punjab governor Salman Taseer and former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and some foreigners and government employees.
“The other side should also reciprocate and release non-combatants,” Khan said, adding that the talks would bring peace into country.
The government began negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) through intermediaries in February to try to end the Islamists' bloody seven-year insurgency.
The umbrella militant group had demanded the release of what they called “non-combatant” prisoners and the establishment of a “peace zone” where security forces would not be present.
Last month the Taliban handed over a list of 300 people including women, children, and old men, seeking their release.
On Wednesday, the government handed over 19 tribesmen based in South Waziristan, calling them “non-combatant Taliban prisoners”.
But militia's spokesman denied the men had been sought by them or were its members.
Khan noted that the attacks had “considerably reduced” since the start of peace talks with TTP, and said the peace process had entered a new phase.
“By the time the next round of direct talks is held next week, the number of released prisoners will reach around 30,” Khan said.
Sami-ul-Haq, a member of the Taliban negotiating committee which attended Saturday's session, told reporters that a government meeting with the Taliban Shura (council) was likely to take place in the next two to three days.
“Government is talking all possible measures for the success of peace talks and both sides want durable peace in the country,” Haq said.
The peace talks were a key campaign pledge for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before he was elected to office for a third time last year.
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