Pakistan released eight Taliban detainees on Monday, including two former ministers in the regime that governed Afghanistan from September 1996 to December 2001. With this, the number of Taliban prisoners released by Pakistan over the past month-and-a-half has gone up to 26.

The latest batch released includes former Justice Minister Nooruddin Turabi and his colleague Allah Daad Tabib. Italso, includes former Governors from Helmand and Kabul, Abdul Bari and Mullah Dawood Jan respectively. While there were speculations throughout Monday concerning the release, the official confirmation came late in the night from the Foreign Office. 

It said the detainees were being released to facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process. The first batch was released in November during a visit of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) to Islamabad. Afghanistan and the HPC have for long been seeking the release of Taliban detainees. However, Pakistan is yet to release Taliban deputy commander Mullah Baradar.

This is the first time such senior Taliban leaders have been released by Pakistan, the earlier releases being mid-level fighters. Turabi — on the United Nations’ sanctions list since 2001 — was not only close to Taliban chief Mullah Omar but played an important role in setting the country’s strict moral codes as head of the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. He is also said to have played a lead role in the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Turabi,among the oldest Taliban leaders, believed to be in poor health.

Still, the general perception is that he wields considerable influence over the Taliban. According to the United Nations Security Council’s narrative summaries of reasons for listing individuals associated with the Taliban, Turabi is a deputy to Mullah Omar and participated in Taliban Shura meetings in 2009.

The prisoner release is being billed by Pakistan as its way of articulating commitment to the Afghan reconciliation process amid criticism of playing both ends. Of late, the U.S. has also scaled down its criticism of Pakistan. And, Radio Pakistan quoted a senior member of the HPC Ismail Qasimyar as welcoming the release of Taliban prisoners by Pakistan.