Flip-flop as govt frees 19 ‘non-combatant’ Taliban

* PM House retracts denial after Interior Ministry confirms statement by SWA political agent on release of Mehsud prisoners * Release of 100 more detainees in the offing
AFP

ISLAMABAD: At least 19 non-combatant Taliban prisoners have been released by the government in a bid to revive the unsteady dialogue process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
However, there was confusion on the release of the non-combatant TTP prisoners, as the Prime Minister’s Secretariat initially denied that it ordered the release of any prisoner, apparently due to massive pressure from the military establishment. The PM Secretariat, however, retracted this statement later following a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. It said the prime minister had indeed ordered the release of the non-combatant TTP members.
The TTP had reportedly handed a list of prisoners to the government demanding their release, during different rounds of the recently revived peace talks. On the other hand, the military establishment is opposed to the release of TTP prisoners, both combatants and non-combatants, due to their alleged involvement in terror attacks across the country. The prisoners were released in phases. “Three prisoners were released on March 21, five on 25th and 11 on March 28,” Interior Ministry sources confided.
The Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed that all the prisoners belonged to the Mehsud tribe. Sources said that in the coming days about another 100 non-combatant detainees would also be released. Islamzeb, political agent of South Waziristan Agency, had told the media that the prisoners were released following directives of the prime minister, but the government denied this initially. “These men were criminals, not militants, who committed crimes of minor nature,” Islamzeb said, adding that up to 100 such prisoners would be released in the coming days on the orders of the prime minister.
“The government has neither released any Taliban prisoner nor the prime minister gave any approval for any such measure,” said a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad. Well-placed sources revealed that Nawaz backed out when top military circles expressed reservations on the move. Although civilian authorities claimed that all freed prisoners were non-combatants but military sources could not confirm the government’s claim.
A source in the Prime Minister’s office said Nawaz Sharif personally authorised the releases - an apparent sign he is giving in to pressure from the Pakistan Taliban and resisting those in the military arguing for tougher military action against militant strongholds. “But they (released prisoners) are all non-combatant civilians. They are not sensitive figures,” the prime minister’s aide said. “Maybe some of them are Taliban sympathisers but they are not commanders and have no role in the talks process.” “Releasing them will create goodwill and we hope they (Taliban) will reciprocate,” he added.
Until last week, the government had repeatedly insisted it had no non-combatant prisoners in its custody
The release came a day after one of the Taliban factions vowed that it would not extend the ceasefire. The Taliban leaders recently went into huddle to chalk out their future plans regarding the shaky talks process. Last month, government’s representatives held direct talks with a team of the local Taliban in volatile Orakzai Agency. While seeking an exchange of non-combatant prisoners, Taliban had also sought creation of “free zone” facility in South Waziristan. Few days later, Rustam Shah, an ex-ambassador and one of the government nominees for the talks, endorsed the Taliban demand, saying that such a facility would help in the dialogue process.
The Pakistani Taliban called a one-month ceasefire on March 1 but said this week they would not extend the truce because the government was not serious about meeting their demands. The demands include releasing 800 prisoners the insurgent group describes as innocent family members and withdrawing the army from parts of the semi-autonomous tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. 

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