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KABUL, Afghanistan – When the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan meet Tuesday 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 alleges he is still in Pakistani custody under pressure from the U.S.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested that 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 Baradar — a founder of the Taliban movement — will figure prominently at the London meeting between Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi. British Prime Minister David Cameron is hosting the meeting aimed at improving often-hostile relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
One senior Taliban official said 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 Karzai to negotiate with the religious movement.
The Taliban official told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that 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 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 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 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 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.
Karzai is expected to demand that he and his High Peace Council talk to Baradar — at least by telephone — to urge him to press his Taliban comrades into talks.
Baradar has been a priority for Karzai, who claimed the Taliban leader had been ready to talk peace when he was arrested in a CIA-Pakistani operation in 2010. Baradar belongs to the same Kandahar-based tribe as Karzai, who has sought to win over the Taliban by pressing Pakistan to release its members.
Attempts to open talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban in June ended in failure after Karzai accused the militants of setting up a government in exile and demanded they remove their flag and a sign identifying the movement as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban refused and closed their office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Despite Karzai's insistence that the High Peace Council lead negotiations, one of its senior members, Mohammed Mohaqiq, complained that the president and its chief secretary, Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai, have sidelined the council. Mohaqiq said Karzai's reliance on tribal links to entice the Taliban to talks is doomed to fail because the group is "motivated by ideology, not tribal ties."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon