Afghanistan has arrested and handed over several Uighur militants from China’s west as it seeks help in restarting negotiations with the Taliban, Afghan security officials said on Friday.
The deal sheds light on China’s increasing importance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with its involvement in efforts to end the war with Taliban, who have been fighting since 2001 to re-establish their rule in Afghanistan.
Hopes for a peace process were raised on Thursday when Pakistani and Afghan officials said members of the Taliban leadership had signalled they were willing to begin talks as soon as next month.
The apparent Taliban change of position was said to have been made under pressure from Pakistan, although the official Taliban spokesperson denied any move towards negotiations with the Afghan government.
Pakistan has been under pressure from China, which is concerned about extremists among its Muslim minority, to step up pressure against militants. Three senior Afghan police and intelligence officials described the operation last month to capture ethnic Uighur militants, members of a separatist movement opposed to Beijing’s rule over the Xinjiang region, which is home to the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighurs.
“We offered our hand in cooperation with China and in return we asked them to pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban or at least bring them to the negotiating table,” said one of the security officials, who attended a meeting with Chinese officials to arrange transfer of the prisoners.
Chinese officials in Beijing and at the embassy in Kabul did not respond to requests for comment.
The Uighurs, who the Afghan officials claimed had trained in militant camps in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, were handed over to Chinese officials last month.
A second security official said a total of 15 Uighurs were arrested – three in the capital, Kabul, and 12 later in the eastern province of Kunar bordering Pakistan.
They had been in contact with al Qaeda and other militants operating in Pakistan, according to a member of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.
A Pakistani Taliban commander in the border area said by telephone that a group of Uighurs had been based in the Pakistani border region of North Waziristan but left when the Pakistani army launched an offensive there last year.
“They have shifted to Afghanistan,” he said.