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Afghanistan says Taliban leader died two years ago

The government confirmed that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban, died in April 2013.

FILE: Afghan security personnel stand guard in Chardara district of Kunduz province. The Taliban launched their annual summer offensive in late April. Picture: AFP.

KABUL - Afghanistan said on Wednesday that Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban movement, died more than two years ago.

"The government ... based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan," the Presidential Palace said in a statement.

"The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process."

Earlier today, Afghanistan said it was investigating reports of the death of Omar who was behind an escalating insurgency against the government in Kabul.

The announcement came a day or so before a second round of peace talks had been tentatively scheduled, and uncertainty over the fate of the elusive Omar could deepen Taliban divisions over whether to pursue negotiations and who should replace him.

Omar, who would be in his mid-50s, has not been seen in public since fleeing when the Taliban was toppled from power by a US-led coalition in 2001, and there has been speculation for years among militant circles that he was either incapacitated or had died.

Omar has been rumoured to have died several times in the past, but none of the reports has been confirmed.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was also looking into the reliability of the latest reports.

The comments came as preparations were under way for the next round of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, provisionally planned for Thursday or Friday in a location yet to be confirmed.

Ghani is keen to broker a settlement with insurgents, who have been gaining territory in pockets of the country and intensifying attacks on military and political targets.

Thousands of civilians and security personnel are killed each year in the violence, which has worsened since NATO withdrew most of its forces from the country at the end of 2014.

A defence official with the remaining coalition forces in Afghanistan questioned the timing of the Omar announcement.

"Why are they publicising the news now, before the Afghan Taliban peace talks? Is it to weaken the Taliban's position? It's a big question."

SUCCESSION MOVES

Renewed uncertainty over Omar's fate was likely to intensify the internal tussle to replace him.

The Taliban is already split between senior figures who support talks with Kabul to end the 13-year war and others who want to continue to fight for power.

A senior Afghan Taliban commander based in neighbouring Pakistan said Omar had died of natural causes, although he did not specify when. "We are at a crossroads, and it will take some time to resolve this (leadership) issue," the militant said.

He added that a faction within the Taliban wanted one of Omar's sons to take over, while another favored the promotion of political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who has been among those who support peace talks.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he believed Omar was dead, explaining his silence when NATO troops withdrew and when Ghani's government took power.

"These death confirmations and rejections are all part of a big pitch for power within an increasingly fractured and rudderless organization," he said of the Taliban.

A senior official from the Pakistani military, which historically has close ties to the Afghan Taliban and other Islamist militant groups in the region, could not confirm Omar's death, but added that, "It's worth asking why this news has come out now, when we are two days away from the second round of peace talks.

"Especially in light of reports that he died two years ago... why is this news being released now? It raises questions about the intentions of people who don't want talks to go forward."

Nicholas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, noted that alleged confirmation of Omar's death had emanated from Pakistan.

"It provides an opportunity for Afghans to turn the page on the past and focus on the conditions and arrangements by which Afghans can live together in peace," he said.

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