Pakistani lawyers, human-rights activists and opposition-party members can scarcely ignore the irony of their situation: while thousands of them are being beaten and locked up under President Pervez Musharraf’s newly declared state of emergency, his government has just let more than two dozen militant Islamists out of jail. Protesters might be even angrier if Musharraf disclosed the names of some of those freed militants. Taliban sources tell NEWSWEEK that the top man on the list was Mullah Obaidullah Akhund—the highest-ranking Taliban official ever captured by the Pakistanis. As one of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s closest confidants and his defense minister until the post 9-11 invasion of Afghanistan, Obaidullah was No. 3 in the group’s hierarchy and a member of its ruling 10-man shura (council).
Intelligence reports of Obaidullah’s release have raised concern among American officials. At the moment they’re still checking whether it was in fact the senior Taliban official who was freed and not someone else by the same name. A Pakistani military source denied to NEWSWEEK that Obaidullah had been released—but in the next breath claimed to be unaware that Obaidullah had ever been captured. At least two important Taliban commanders have confirmed to NEWSWEEK that Mullah Omar’s third in command is back on the loose. Another Taliban operative says Obaidullah spoke to one of his fellow fighters on the phone several days ago.
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