Taliban official: Group leader killed in drone strike

FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015 file photo, shows Taliban leader Mullah Mansour. The U.S. conducted an airstrike Saturday, May 21, 2016, against the Taliban leader the Pentagon said, and a U.S. official said Mansour was believed to have been killed. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the attack occurred in a remote region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He said the U.S. was studying the results of the attack. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A senior commander of the Afghan Taliban confirmed on Sunday that the extremist group’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, has been killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Mullah Abdul Rauf, who recently reconciled with Mansour after initially rebelling against his ascension to the leadership, told The Associated Press that Mansour died in the strike late Friday “in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.”

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency confirmed Sunday that Mansour had been killed.

Earlier in the day Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said that Mansour is “more than likely” dead.

Speaking live on television as he chaired a Cabinet meeting, Abdullah said Mansour’s death would have a positive impact on attempts to bring peace to Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been waging an insurgency for 15 years.

Mansour was “the main figure preventing the Taliban joining the peace process,” Abdullah said. “From the day he took over the Taliban following the death of Mullah Omar, he intensified violence against ordinary citizens, especially in Afghanistan.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Myanmar Sunday, repeatedly referred to Mansour in the past tense.

Mansour, he said “posed a continuing imminent threat to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, Afghan civilians, Afghan security forces” and members of the U.S./NATO coalition.

He said the air strike on Mansour “sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners.”

“Peace is what we want, Mansur was a threat to that effort,” Kerry said. “He also was directly opposed to peace negotiations and to the reconciliation process. It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together.”

Mansour formally led the Taliban after the death was announced last summer of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the movement’s founder.

Mansour, Mullah Omar’s deputy, concealed Mullah Omar’s death for more than two years, and ran the Taliban in his name until the death was revealed by the Afghan government.

The revelation caused wide fissures in the movement that Mansour worked hard to mend.

Mullah Rauf was an early detractor of Mansour’s but decided earlier this year to declare loyalty to him in the interest of unifying the movement.

Earlier, the U.S. Department of Defense said a drone strike had targeted Mansour “in a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.”

Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named as they were not authorized to speak to media on the subject, said the drone strike took place in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, near the village of Ahmad Wal.

The Afghan government has long accused the Pakistani authorities of harboring and supporting the Afghan Taliban.

The drone strike targeted Mansour’s vehicle which was carrying Mansour and one other person at the time, a U.S. military source said.

Another Taliban source identified the driver as Muhammad Azam Hasanai, and said the vehicle the two men were traveling in was completely destroyed.

After taking office in 2014, Ghani prioritized appeasing the Pakistani authorities in the hope that they would encourage the Taliban to participate in a dialogue aimed at ending the war.

Overtures to Islamabad failed, however, and earlier this year Mansour’s Taliban said that they rejected peace talks and would not participate.

A four-country process with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States appears to have floundered, with Kabul refusing to send a delegation to the most recent round of talks, sending only the ambassador to Islamabad.

A senior Afghan official, who also spoke only on condition of anonymity, said Mansour controlled a substantial financial empire, largely built on smuggling drugs produced in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Different Taliban factions have recently fought over control of smuggling routes, the official said, an indication that the group’s ideological discipline and unity was slipping.

“When they started fighting for power, that was the erosion of the legitimacy of their own rank and file,” he said.

The official said there had been a recent shift in the balance of power from Mansour to his deputy, Surajuddin Haqqani, a leader of the notoriously brutal Haqqani network. It is not clear, however, which commander or faction will now take over the leadership of the group.

Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, is popular, charismatic and believed to favor participation in a peace talks. He controls the Taliban’s military commissions in 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and, like Rauf, recently reconciled with Mansour.

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