Pakistan frees Taliban militants for peace talks at Afghanistan's request

Taliban fighters line up to hand over their weapons to join the peace process in Herat, Afghanistan, Nov. 3, 2012.

ISLAMABAD Pakistan freed several Taliban prisoners at the request of the Afghan government Wednesday, a move meant to facilitate the process of striking a peace deal with the militant group in neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said.

The release of the prisoners — described as mid- and low-level fighters — is the most encouraging sign yet that Pakistan may be willing to help jumpstart peace talks that have mostly gone nowhere, hobbled by distrust among the major players involved, including the United States.

Pakistan is seen as key to the process because of its historical ties to the Taliban and because many of the group's leaders are believed to be based on Pakistani territory, having fled there following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The release came as a new survey showed a majority of Afghans feel optimistic about the future of their country, and an overwhelming majority back the government's efforts to negotiate and reconcile with armed insurgent groups.

The poll by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation found that most Afghans believe their country is headed in the right direction, but still worry about the lack of security resulting from the 11-year war.

Wednesday's release of the Taliban militants came in response to a personal request by Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of an Afghan government council for peace talks with the Taliban, said a Pakistani government official and an intelligence official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the release.

Rabbani is in Islamabad on a three-day visit that ends Wednesday.

The seven released were "low- and mid-level" fighters, and it is up to them whether they go back to Afghanistan to participate in peace talks, said the Pakistani government official.

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said he could neither confirm nor deny the prisoner release.

A Pakistani diplomat described the move to CBS News' Farhan Bokhari as, "a fresh initiative which will help to settle down the Afghan conflict."

The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the release was, "the first phase to see if the return of these men to Afghanistan will make a difference."

He said, it was too early for Pakistan to release more senior militants in detention. "We have to see the Afghan peace process gather a bit of a momentum. Once there is a (peace) process underway which is irreversible, only then we will consider" freeing more senior militants.