USA TODAY’s Robert Padavick discusses the news with world editor Owen Ullmann.
ISLAMABAD-Afghan government officials said Wednesday that reclusive Taliban chief Mullah Omar is dead, and that he died more than two years ago in Pakistan.
Abdul Hassib Seddiqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s security services, told the BBC Omar died of health problems at a hospital in Pakistan.
The comments on Omar’s reported death came as preparations were underway for peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, provisionally planned for Thursday or Friday at a location yet to be confirmed.
Pakistani media reports said Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a close aide of Omar, is planning to replace his leader.
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However, Mullah Omar’s death could complicate the 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 the government of Ghani, who assumed office previous year.
Omar hasn’t been heard from much in recent years but is still a symbolically important leader.
“According to my information Mullah Omar is still alive and leading the movement”, he said.
“We have reports of Mullah Omar’s demise”, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi told reporters at a hastily called briefing in Kabul on Wednesday.
Asked to explain the contradiction between reports quoting Omar’s name and insiders’ knowledge that he was long dead, an expert on the Taliban shrugged and said the messages were intended to keep up the spirits of beleaguered Taliban fighters. They reported that a new leader of the Islamist group would be elected before July 31.
There have been several reports of Mullah Omar’s death in the past.
Omar, who was Afghanistan’s 11th head of state from 1996 to late 2001, was believed to have been living in Quetta and Karachi in Pakistan. The Taliban website published statements attributed to Omar as recently as five days ago.
Afghanistan’s spy agency confirmed the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, who rose from obscure cleric to spiritual leader of the Taliban.
“News of his death comes at a hard time for the movement, which is deeply divided over whether to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government with the aim of ending the 14-year war”, the Journal reports.
In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, the U.S. government offered large rewards for the capture of many al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.