KABUL // Taliban leader Mullah Omar died two years ago, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency spokesman Haseeb Sediqi said on Wednesday.
His statement came after unnamed government and militant sources told media that the one-eyed militant had died two or three years ago.
“We confirm officially that he is dead,” said Mr Sediqi, spokesman for the National Directorate of Security. “He died in a Karachi hospital in April 2013 ... under mysterious circumstances.”
He said that the Afghan government had been aware of Mullah Omar’s death for two years and had made it public on a number of occasions.
However, Zafar Hashemi, deputy spokesman for Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, had earlier said that the government was investigating reports that the Taliban leader was dead.
It was not immediately clear why his death was only being announced now. Neither the Taliban nor Pakistani officials could immediately be reached for comment.
A separate official in Afghanistan’s national unity government said earlier that Mullah Omar had died “due to an illness”.
“He was buried in Zabul province (in southern Afghanistan),” the official added, citing Afghan intelligence sources.
Rumours of Mullah Omar’s ill-health and even death have regularly surfaced in the past, but the latest claims – just two days before peace talks with the insurgents – mark the first such confirmation from the Afghan government.
The White House responded to the claims, saying the United States had concluded that reports of Mullah Omar’s death were credible.
The secretive head of the Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in the years leading up to the September 11 attacks and then waged a decade-long insurgency against US troops after the 2001 invasion that ended Taliban rule.
He has not been seen in public since fleeing the invasion over the border into Pakistan, and was rarely heard from.
In an unusual step, the Taliban in April published a biography of their leader and declared that he was still in charge. It followed attempts by ISIL to establish a presence in Afghanistan, and the defection of several Taliban factions across the Pakistani border region who cited the lack of an inspirational leader.
A Pakistani security official had earlier dismissed rumours of Mullah Omar’s death as “speculation” designed to disrupt peace talks.
Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban are due to meet on Friday in Pakistan for a second round of official talks aimed at ending the war that is nearing its 14th year.
Confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death could complicate the peace process as it removes a figurehead for the insurgents, who until now have appeared to act collectively but are believed to be split on whether to continue the war or negotiate with president Ghani’s government.
Ending the war has been a main priority for Mr Ghani since he took office last year.
“Whether [Mullah Omar] is dead or alive is important because he is the collective figure for the Taliban,” said a Western diplomat with connections to the Taliban leadership.
“If he is dead, it would be much more difficult to get negotiations with the Taliban because there would be no collective figure to rally around and take collective responsibility for entering peace talks.”
His death could trigger a power struggle within the movement, observers say, with insurgent sources claiming that Mullah Mansour, the current Taliban deputy, and Omar’s son Mohammad Yakoub are both top contenders to replace him.
In February, the United Nations said that the Taliban controlled just four of 373 districts nationwide, but that 40 per cent of all towns and cities faced a significant threat from the insurgents. The group has seized more territory since.
In recent weeks, Taliban insurgents have branched out from the group’s traditional southern and eastern heartlands, which border Pakistan, taking control of remote districts in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, and continue to launch mass attacks on districts in the northern province of Kunduz, a strategically located region bordering Tajikistan.
The strategy has spread Afghan military resources thin after US and Nato forces ended their combat mission at the end of last year.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg