Key Taliban leader absent from talks

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- When the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan meet today in London, a key issue will be the whereabouts of a senior Taliban member who the Afghans believe would be valuable in future peace talks.

The Pakistanis announced last month that they had freed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The Taliban allege he is still in Pakistani custody under pressure from the United States.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested that Mullah Baradar, a former No. 2 in the Islamic militant movement behind leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, is important to moving forward the stalled negotiations to end the 12-year war.

Talks with the Taliban have taken on greater urgency as the clock ticks down toward December 2014 and the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan.

The mystery surrounding Mullah Baradar -- a founder of the Taliban movement -- will figure prominently at the London meeting between Mr. Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said. British Prime Minister David Cameron is hosting the meeting aimed at improving often-hostile relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One senior Taliban official said Mullah Baradar is still under house arrest in Pakistan and is not allowed to see his family until he agrees to meet with Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which was set up by Mr. Karzai to negotiate with the religious movement.

The Taliban official told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that Mullah Baradar had spoken twice to his family in Karachi since his release was announced Sept. 21.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because Mullah Omar has not authorized interviews, the official, who held a commanding position during the Taliban rule, also spent four years in Pakistani custody. He said Mullah Baradar met Taliban members while in custody and assured them that he would not defy Mullah Omar's orders forbidding direct talks with the Afghan government.

A U.S. official said there are suggestions that outgoing Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is trying to arrange a meeting between Mullah Baradar and Afghan officials. The official did not have authorization to talk to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pakistani officials have refused to comment.

The Taliban leader who spoke to the AP said Pakistani intelligence has said Mullah Baradar will likely be released in the next month.

But two senior U.S. officials had earlier told AP that Washington asked Pakistan not to release Mullah Baradar because he would give the Taliban a strategic advantage on the battlefield. The two U.S. officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they too were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Mr. Karzai is expected to demand that he and his High Peace Council talk to Mullah Baradar -- at least by telephone -- to urge him to press his Taliban comrades into talks.


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