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Monday, May 23, 2011

Taliban denies reports of Mullah Omar's death

Taliban denies reports of Mullah Omar's death

Brig. Gen. Josef BlotzA spokesman says the fugitive Taliban leader is alive in Afghanistan. There is no confirmation of reports by several media outlets that he died in Pakistan.

A Taliban spokesman on Monday vehemently denied a swirl of rumors that the movement's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had died or been killed.

The spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said by telephone that Omar -- the one-eyed, self-declared "commander of the faithful" who has long been thought to be hiding in Pakistan -- was alive and well in Afghanistan, directing the group's military campaign.

Nonetheless, the wildfire-like spread of the reports -- aided by social media such as Twitter -- reflected the intense degree of speculation surrounding Omar's fate, which has dramatically heightened since Navy SEALs killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden three weeks earlier in his Pakistan hideout.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's main intelligence service, Lutfullah Mashal, told the Associated Press that he had information that Omar had been moved from Pakistan's Baluchistan province -- the seat of the Taliban leadership council known as the Quetta shura -- to the North Waziristan tribal agency, with the knowledge of former Pakistani intelligence chief Hamid Gul. The news service said Gul denied the allegation.

Afghanistan's Tolo television took it a step further, citing unidentified sources in the country's National Directorate of Security, or NDS, as saying Omar had been killed while in the process of being moved within Pakistan.

Nearly a decade ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Omar defied Western demands to hand over Bin Laden, instead providing him shelter. Both men then became the subject of international manhunts, with multimillion-dollar bounties on their heads.

Omar fled on the back of a motorbike into the mountains outside Kandahar, at the time the Taliban's base of operations, and was thought to have made his way across the border to Pakistan. Bin Laden was tracked to the mountains of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan, but he too slipped away.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, called reports of Omar's death propaganda meant to shake the confidence of the group's fighters in the field. Since Bin Laden's death, the movement has also dismissed reports that its leadership had entered into talks aimed at beginning peace negotiations with the West or the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Officials with NATO's International Security Assistance Force said they were aware of reports of Omar's death, which surfaced Monday morning on Pakistani television and were picked up by several other news outlets.

"There is certainly a great temptation to start giving comments on this, or getting into speculation, but this is not what I am going to do here now, because what we really need, of course, is a confirmation on what has really happened," ISAF spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz told reporters in Kabul.

"We need to wait," he said.

The revelation that, at the time of the SEALs' raid, Bin Laden had been living for about five years in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad revived longstanding anger in Afghanistan over Pakistan's presumed sheltering of other militant figures.

Despite Pakistan's furious public protests that the U.S. raid violated its sovereignty, President Obama told the BBC this week that the United States would act again if it had reason to think another senior terrorist leader was hiding on Pakistani soil.

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