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 Islamist group has vehemently rejected claims by militant sources and intelligence officials that Mansour was critically wounded in a shootout 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.
He did not immediately respond to AFP requests for more information.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the claim as “baseless”, telling AFP that Mansour was alive and well. The group kept longtime chief Mullah Omar’s death secret for two 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.
“If Mansour has died, the Taliban will do everything in its power to keep that a secret for as long as possible,” Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.
“Mansour’s death could spark new infighting over the Taliban leadership,” he said.
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.
Mujahid said it would take some time to put together an audio message from Mansour as he was in a “far away place” where only a few trusted militant commanders are able to contact him.
“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 told AFP.
“Simply posting denials... won’t be considered credible enough, especially after Omar’s death was concealed for years.”
Mansour was declared Taliban leader on July 31 after the insurgents confirmed the death of Omar, who led the Islamist movement for about two decades.
But splits immediately emerged in the group, with some top leaders refusing to pledge allegiance to Mansour, saying the process to select him was rushed and even biased.
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 -- and Amarkhil said Mansour’s death could provoke fresh fighting with Rasool’s men.
Afghan officials on Wednesday confirmed reports that Rasool’s deputy, Mullah Dadullah, was killed last month in a gunfight with Mansour loyalists.
Mansour’s group has seen a new resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to beat back the expanding insurgency.
But in a rare success, a US-Afghan military operation on Thursday freed more than 40 local soldiers and police held captive in a Taliban prison in the southern province of Helmand.
The divisions in Taliban ranks poses a major challenge to peace talks with the government.
Pakistan, which has historically backed the Taliban, hosted a first round of peace negotiations in July but the dialogue process stalled soon after Omar’s death was announced.
The United States and China have been pushing for the process to restart, but frosty ties between Islamabad and Kabul have been hampering those efforts.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this week voiced a willingness to revive the negotiations following a meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Paris.