ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan said on Monday that negotiations between the Afghan government and the insurgent Taliban were expected to begin soon but that the release of 5,000 prisoners and a reduction of violence were the final hurdles.
Pakistan is Afghanistan's top trading partner and is seen as a key regional player in helping facilitate a February troop withdrawal deal between the United States and the Taliban to begin the process of ending 18 years of war.
The agreement was intended to quickly lead to talks between the militant group and the Afghan government, but became mired in delays.
Pakistan's ambassador to Kabul, Zahid Nasrullah Khan, told Reuters in an interview he was "cautiously optimistic" and that talks could begin next month, so long as the final issues were overcome.
"The two important things are the level of violence – that it should be kept low to have an enabling environment – and to reach that magic figure of 5,000 prisoners (released)," he said.
Reuters reported on Friday that progress was being made over the release of a few hundred controversial Taliban prisoners and that the issue would likely be resolved soon.
However, Khan raised concerns at growing violence. Attacks have picked up around the county in recent months. On Monday at least 23 civilians were killed in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province when rockets hit a cattle market.
"The rising violence is a concern for Pakistan as it is for other countries who want to see the U.S.-Taliban agreement implemented in letter and spirit and to reach the first milestone of the (intra-Afghan negotiations)," he said. "We have been persuading the Taliban to show that the violence level remains down; it's very important."
Khan said negotiations need to begin as soon as possible so a ceasefire agreement could be struck, which the Taliban have so far refused.
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; additional reporting by Rupam Jain and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Dan Grebler)