Taliban commanders refuse to meet former leader in Pakistan: sources

Reuters

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Jibran Ahmad

ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR (Reuters) - Taliban commanders refused to meet their former chief in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Thursday because he was accompanied by Pakistani security agents, dealing a blow to attempts to resume Afghan peace talks, security and militant sources said.

Afghanistan and the United States believe Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who has been held in Pakistan since 2010, holds the key to stopping the war in Afghanistan because he is influential enough to persuade his former comrades there to stop fighting.

Pakistan announced his release on September 20 but Baradar, the former Afghan Taliban second-in-command, is still in custody and watched closely by his Pakistani handlers, an arrangement which could undermine his role as a peacemaker.

Confirming these suspicions, an Afghan Taliban commander said Taliban figures refused to come to Peshawar to meet him because he was accompanied by Pakistani security officials.

"Following his release, he spent some time in Karachi and now arrived in Peshawar to hold meetings with senior members of the movement," the source told Reuters.

"Unfortunately, no one among senior Taliban leaders agreed to see him in Peshawar because security personnel are around him."

It was unclear who Baradar wanted to meet and how long he would stay in Peshawar, a volatile city hit by frequent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, a militant group operating independently from their Afghan namesakes.

Two Pakistani security officials confirmed Baradar was in Peshawar for preliminary discussions about the peace process.

Officially talks have yet to start and there is still hope that formal discussions on the future of Afghanistan will resume once Baradar has left Pakistan.

But many are skeptical, with the Taliban themselves suspicious of a man seen as close to Pakistani authorities.

"He isn't a free man and that's why people are afraid of meeting him," said the Taliban official.

Baradar was once a close friend of the reclusive, one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who gave him his nom de guerre, "Baradar" or "brother".

He belongs to the same tribe as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and has once reached out to the Kabul government with a peace proposal.

Pakistan plays an important role in the process because it backed the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s and has access to insurgent leaders who fled to Pakistan after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

Afghanistan, which suspects its neighbor of trying to influence its internal affairs, wants Baradar to be handed over and believes he cannot be considered released as long as he is on Pakistani soil.

Another Taliban official said Baradar might be sent to Turkey and then on to Saudi Arabia where the Taliban were also planning to send a delegation for the annual haj pilgrimage.

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; additional reporting by Saud Mehsud and Asim Tanveer; Editing by Pravin Char)

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