Afghan peace negotiators have welcomed the release of eight Taliban prisoners who had been held in Pakistan, hailing the move as a significant boost in efforts to end 11 years of war.
The High Peace Council, set up to conduct negotiations with the Taliban, said on Tuesday the releases underlined that neighbouring Pakistan was supporting the talks as US-led NATO combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan.
Support from Islamabad, which backed the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, is seen as crucial to peace in Afghanistan after NATO's scheduled departure in 2014.
Nooruddin Turabi, a former Taliban justice minister, was among the eight freed on Monday, adding to 18 others released in November after appeals from Kabul.
Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith, reporting from Kabul, said: "It's been seen as an indication that Pakistanis have taken on board the idea of promoting stability here in Afghanistan."
Afghan officials believe Taliban leaders released from Pakistani jails could help bring fighters to the negotiating table.
"It is a practical step in the right direction," said Ismail Qasimyar, head of international relations for the peace council.
"It shows the Pakistani authorities have opened a new chapter for positive co-operation with Afghanistan.
"Pakistan can play an important role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. We welcome this move and hope those freed will become peace messengers," he told AFP news agency."
'Pakistan has crucial role'
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, senior peace council member, told the Reuters news agency that Kabul hoped to transform the Afghan Taliban into a political movement.
Signs are emerging that the Afghan government is gaining momentum in its drive to persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms before most NATO combat troops pull out.
Members of the government, the Taliban and some of their old enemies in the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for several years, discussed ways of easing the conflict during a recent meeting in France.
"I think one consensus was that everybody acknowledged that nobody will win by military [means]," said Stanekzai, who was badly wounded in a 2011 Taliban suicide bombing attack.
Pakistan, long accused of supporting Afghan armed groups such as the Taliban, has sent the strongest signals yet that it will deliver on promises of helping the Kabul government and the US bring stability to its neighbour.
Islamabad's involvement is seen as critical to US and Afghan efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan.
"This is an important step in partnership and co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan in supporting Afghan peace process," Janan Musazai, Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
"I believe Pakistan has crucial role to play because Taliban leadership continues to be in Pakistan.
"The release of prisoners is one element of the crucial and important support Pakistan can provide in facilitating direct contact with Taliban and encouraging their leaders to engage in direct talks with Afghan government."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies