9/12/2004 4:00:00 PM GMT
Pakistani prisoners (C) wait for their release as Afghan police stand by the gate of prison in Kabul
363 of Pakistanis were released from an Afghan prison Sunday — after being jailed for three years as prisoners of war, a step meant to amend strained relations between the two countries.
The Pul-i-Charki prison just outside Kabul is one of the biggest prisons in the world, with a capacity of 20,000 prisoners.
The 368 prisoners, captured during the oust of the Taliban, were being driven by bus 155 miles to the Pakistani town of Peshawar for screening by Pakistani authorities.
"We are glad that their ordeal is finally over," said Pakistani embassy third secretary Zafar Ali Khan. "We have been trying to get access to them for a long time. We believe there has been no need to have kept them for so long in Afghan jails."
The prisoners range in age from 22 to 60.
"They could have done this much sooner," Pakistani Ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand said of the prisoner release by Afghanistan. "Still, I appreciate it, and the Afghan and Pakistani governments want to have good relations."
The prisoners gathered in a large tent across the road from the prison, as Afghan officials gave out a speech before busses take freed prisoners to the Pakistan border.
Rahman, one of the released Pakistani prisoners said he was extremely happy to finally return home, but his ordeal was not over.
Zafar Ali Khan, another Pakistani diplomat, said the prisoners will be taken to a Pakistani prison for investigations about how they had ended up in Afghanistan.
"This will take at least three months," he said.
Khan said those men were the remaining of 3,000 Pakistani prisoners released from Afghan jails since the oust of Taliban at the end of 2001.
On the other hand, about 200 Afghans are being released from Pakistani prisons, in a similar bid to restore ties between the neighbouring countries.
Pakistan rejects U.S. claims that its territory still homes Taliban rebels as a launch pad for cross-border attacks.