Pakistan has released 14 Afghan Taliban cadres, including 'commander' Anwar Haq Mujahid, and may consider a request by Afghan peace negotiators to free Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to kick-start the Afghan reconciliation process.
The 14 Afghan Taliban cadres were freed in two phases.
Nine of them were released as an 18-member Afghan High Peace Council delegation led by Salahuddin Rabbani wound up its four-day visit to Islamabad on Thursday.
Four cadres were freed ahead of the Peace Council's visit as a confidence-building measure, sources said. Other than Mujahid, the cadres were all mid-level leaders of the Afghan Taliban.
Mujahid's name was on a list of Taliban cadres whose release had been sought by Afghan authorities.
Sources close to Mujahid in Peshawar too confirmed that he had been freed and had joined his family on Thursday night.
The Afghan High Peace Council had asked Pakistan to free four militant commanders, including Mujahid and Mullah Baradar, the former second in command of the Afghan Taliban.
The Peace Council delegation returned to Kabul on Thursday after securing the release of the Taliban cadres and a promise that the Pakistan government would consider freeing Mullah Baradar, the Dawn reported.
On the last day of the visit, Salahuddin Rabbani and his delegation pressed for the release of Mullah Baradar and at least three other key aides of Taliban chief Mullah Omar, including Mullah Noorudin Toorabi.
The Dawn quoted a source as saying that Pakistani officials "showed more flexibility and promised to consider" the request for the release of Mullah Baradar, Toorabi and two other commanders.
Any decision would depend on how the release of the first batch of mid-ranking Taliban cadres plays out, the report said.
Toorabi served as justice minister during the Taliban rule in 1996-2001 and is a close confidant of Mullah Omar.
The Afghan High Peace Council's list also includes popular Taliban leader Abdul Ahad, who uses the alias Jehangirwal and had served as a special assistant to Mullah Omar.
Sources said the Afghan government had submitted a list of nearly 40 Taliban prisoners to the Pakistani authorities.
Pakistan has agreed in principle to release all the prisoners demanded by the Afghan government but will go ahead with the plan in several stages, sources said.
Sources privy to the reconciliation process said that the freed militants will not be handed over to the Afghan government in accordance with an agreement between the Pakistani and Afghan peace negotiators.
Both countries agreed in principle that there would be no restrictions on the freed Taliban leaders and they could rejoin their families either in Pakistan or go to Afghanistan or any other country under a "safe passage" mechanism.
"They will not be stopped by any country and will not be arrested," a source involved in the talks said.
Both countries also agreed to form a small bilateral group for establishing contact with the Afghan Taliban.
Abdul Waheed Mubariz, a member of the Peace Council, said Pakistan's move of releasing the Taliban prisoners will benefit Afghanistan and the Taliban since they can reintegrate into society.
The News daily quoted its sources in the Taliban as saying that a number of detained cadres had been shifted to the central prison in Peshawar and other jails from secret detention centres in a possible move to release them in the coming days.