By Saud Mehsud
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan, Dec 7 (Reuters) - A senior Taliban militant captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year was secretly flown to Pakistan this past week, two senior security officials said on Sunday, potentially paving the way to other high profile prisoner exchanges.
The United States is searching for ways to help foster slowly warming relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, seen as key to defeating the Taliban after NATO forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan this month.
Strained relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan improved slightly after new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani got a warm welcome from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during a state visit last month.
Relations between the two neighbours were rocky because each accuses suspects the other of harbouring Taliban insurgents. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are separate but allied and both work alongside al Qaeda.
This weekend, two al-Qaeda leaders were reported killed in Pakistan, one by Pakistani forces and one by a U.S. drone strike.
U.S. drone strikes against Pakistani Taliban forces in Afghanistan have also stepped up in recent weeks, the Taliban say, with another strike in Kunar province on Saturday.
In the latest development, Latif Mehsud, the former number two commander in the Pakistani Taliban, was secretly flown to Pakistan on December 5, two security officials said. He was arrested by U.S. troops in Afghanistan last year.
High profile prisoner exchanges could smooth the way to peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
"TTP senior commander Latif Mehsud who was arrested was handed over to Pakistani authorities along with his guards," one Pakistani security official said. "They reached Islamabad."
U.S. officials declined to comment.
Ghani's spokesman Nazifullah Salarzai would not confirm the transfer or directly confirm that Mehsud had been in U.S. custody. Pakistani media reported Mehsud had been flown over in a U.S. plane and handed over to Pakistani authorities.
"He was not in Afghan detention and we are working on gathering information on how this took place," Salarzai said.
Elsewhere, a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan's southern Kunar province killed nine Taliban from Pakistan's Swat region, the Taliban and police said.
Pakistan has long complained Afghan and U.S. authorities have not hit Pakistani insurgent bases in Afghanistan hard enough. But Pakistani Taliban say drone strikes against their Afghan bases have increased in recent weeks, an uptick that would assuage those complaints.
"In yesterday's drone attack in Shultan valley of Shigal district in Kunar, nine Pakistani Taliban including their commander, Ali, were killed and two were wounded," Kunar police chief Habib Sayedkhil said. (Additional reporting by Frank Jack in Kabul and Mohammad Anwar in Asadabad, Afghanistan; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Stephen Powell)
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