ISLAMABAD – Pakistan will not turn over the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader and two other high-value militants captured this month to the United States, but may deport them to Afghanistan, a senior minister said Friday.
Interior Minister Rahman Malik said Pakistani authorities were still questioning Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most senior Taliban figure arrested since the start of the Afghan war in 2001, and two other senior militants arrested with U.S. assistance in separate operations this month.
If it is determined that the militants have not committed any crimes in Pakistan, they will not remain in the country, he said.
"First we will see whether they have violated any law," Malik told reporters in Islamabad. "If they have done it, then the law will take its own course against them.
"But at the most if they have not done anything, then they will go back to the country of origin, not to USA," Malik said.
Pakistani authorities working with the CIA arrested Baradar about two weeks ago in the southern city of Karachi, Pakistani and U.S. officials have said. At about the same time, Pakistani security forces picked up Taliban "shadow governors" for two Afghan provinces, Afghan officials said.
A series of raids by Pakistani forces have followed, netting at least nine Al Qaeda-linked militants who were sheltering in Pakistan. Missiles fired from a U.S. unmanned drone aircraft on Thursday killed the brother of Afghan Taliban commander Siraj Haqqani, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
Taken together, the crackdown could be the most significant blow to the militants since U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the hard-line Islamist Taliban regime for sheltering Usama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the U.S. was pleased with the recent arrests. He declined to say whether they were the result of better intelligence or an increased willingness by Pakistan to go after suspected militants.
"What I will say to you, yet again, is that we are enormously heartened by the fact that the Pakistani government and their military intelligence services increasingly recognize the threat within their midst and are doing something about it," Morrell said.
Some of those caught in the recent operations are key figures in the Afghan insurgency, while others are members of militant groups that operate just across the border in Pakistan.
Among those arrested were Ameer Muawiya, a bin Laden associate who was in charge of foreign Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan's border areas, and Akhunzada Popalzai, also known as Mohammad Younis, a one-time Taliban shadow governor in Zabul province and former police chief in Kabul, according to Mullah Mamamood, a tribal leader in Ghazni province.
Others captured in Karachi included Hamza, a former Afghan army commander in Helmand province during Taliban rule, and Abu Riyad al Zarqawi, a liaison with Chechen and Tajik militants in Pakistan's border area, Pakistani officials said.
The Taliban shadow governors — Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz province and Mullah Mohammad in Baghlan province — were instrumental in expanding Taliban influence in Afghanistan's north, raising fears the insurgency was spreading beyond its base in the south.
Taliban spokesmen have denied the arrests, accusing NATO of spreading propaganda to undermine the morale of Taliban fighters holding out in Marjah against the biggest NATO military operation of the eight-year war. Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops are battling militants in the Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province, a center of the militants' supply and drug-smuggling network.
Baradar is considered a pragmatic Taliban leader, prompting some experts to speculate that he was captured so he could liaise with the Taliban leadership. Other theories include that Pakistan arrested him to thwart attempts to exclude Islamabad from any negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, swatted off attempts to link its timing with efforts to negotiate with the Taliban or an ongoing U.S.-led offensive in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"He was picked up because the information was developed. It had nothing to do with anything else," Holbrooke told reporters in Islamabad.