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'Zardari met captured Taliban leaders, assured support'

June 13, 2010 16:48 IST

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari recently met 50 captured Taliban leaders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a prison to assure them that their outfit had his government's full support and that they would be freed soon, a media report in London claimed on Sunday.

A senior Taliban source in regular contact with members of the Quetta 'shura' or council told The Sunday Times that in early April, Zardari and a senior ISI official met the 50 high-ranking Taliban members at a prison in Pakistan.

This was vigorously denied by Zardari's spokesman, the report said.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Zardari, was quoted as saying: "There's no such thing as President Zardari meeting Taliban leaders. This never happened."

According to a Taliban leader in the jail at the time of Zardari's alleged visit, five days before the meeting prison officials were told to prepare for the impending presidential call.

Prison guards wearing dark glasses served the Taliban captives traditional Afghan meals three times a day. "They wanted to make the prisoners feel like they were important and respected," the source, who was not identified, told the newspaper.

Hours before Zardari's "visit", the head warden told the Taliban inmates to impress upon the president how well they had been looked after during their time in captivity.

According to the report, Zardari spoke to them for half an hour. He allegedly explained that he had arrested them because his government was under increasing American pressure to end the sanctuary enjoyed by the Taliban in Pakistan and to round up their ringleaders.      

"You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations," he said, according to the source.

Zardari vowed to release the less well-known commanders in the near future and said that the "famous" Taliban leaders would be freed at a later date, according to the paper.

Five days after Zardari's visit, a handful of Taliban prisoners, including the newspaper's source, were driven into Quetta and set free, in line with the President's "pledge".

Quoting sources, the report said during his visit to the prison Zardari also met Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's former second in command, who was arrested by the Inter State Intelligence earlier this year with seven other Taliban leaders.

Baradar, who is from the same tribe as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, had allegedly approached the Afghan government to discuss the prospect of a peace settlement between the two sides.

Baradar's arrest is seen in both diplomatic and Taliban circles as an ISI plot to manipulate the Taliban's political hierarchy and also to block negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban leadership.
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