KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN // Confusion surrounded the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was shot in a firefight during an argument with commanders of the divided movement, after an Afghan government spokesman tweeted Friday that he has died.
The militant group has vehemently rejected claims by sources and intelligence officials that Mansour was critically wounded in a shoot out at an insurgent gathering near the Pakistani city of Quetta.
A government spokesman on Friday went further, claiming that Mansour did not survive the clash, which threatens to derail a fresh regional push to jump-start Taliban peace talks.
“Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour died of injuries,” Sultan Faizi, the spokesman for the Afghan first vice president, wrote on Twitter without citing any evidence.
A Taliban spokesman rejected the claim as “baseless”, saying that Mansour was alive and well. The group kept longtime chief Mullah Omar’s death secret for two years.
The mystery surrounding the fate of Mansour further deepened after the Taliban released an audio clip Thursday purportedly from the militant at whose house the firefight is said to have occurred.
A man claiming to be Abdullah Sarhadi, a commander in Mansour’s group and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, staunchly rejected the reports as “enemy propaganda”.
There was no independent verification of the file, which raised the question of why the Taliban have not yet released an audio or video clip from Mansour himself to bolster their claim.
“The sheer volume of rumours suggesting that something has happened to Mansour will pressure the Taliban to offer proof that he’s alive,” a Western official in Kabul said.
“Simply posting denials ... won’t be considered credible enough, especially after Omar’s death was concealed for years.”
The reported clash, which exposes dissent within the Taliban’s top ranks, comes just four months after Mansour was appointed leader in an acrimonious leadership succession.
If confirmed, his death could intensify the power struggle within the fractious group and increase the risk of internecine clashes.
Mansour was declared Taliban leader on July 31 after the insurgents confirmed the death of Omar, who led the movement for about two decades.
But splits immediately emerged, with some top leaders refusing to pledge allegiance to Mansour, saying the process to select him was rushed and even biased.
Many were also unhappy that Omar’s death had been kept secret for two years — during which time annual Eid statements were issued in his name.
A breakaway faction of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohamed Rasool was formed last month, in the first formal split in the once-unified group.
Afghan officials on Wednesday confirmed reports that Rasool’s deputy, Mullah Dadullah, was killed last month in a gunfight with Mansour loyalists.
Rasool’s hardline faction, reported to be aligned to ISIL, also poses a major challenge to peace talks with the government.
* Agence France-Presse