The fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour remained unclear Friday, two days after Afghan authorities alleged he was wounded in a gunfight during a meeting of militant commanders in neighboring Pakistan.
“Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour died of injuries,” Sultan Faizy, a spokesman for the first vice president of Afghanistan said in a Twitter post late Thursday.
Faizy informed media, including VOA, on Wednesday about the alleged firefight that he said took place near the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta on Tuesday.
The Taliban swiftly rejected the claim, saying it was “fabricated” by the Afghan intelligence agency as part of its campaign to create divisions within the Islamist insurgency.
But late Thursday, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah made a formal statement in which he said, “The Afghan government confirms leader of a Taliban faction, Mullah Akhtar Mansour” was wounded in a clash near Quetta, "but we don’t know whether he survived.”
Abdullah also said the incident establishes Afghan assertions that the Taliban insurgency is being supported and directed from the other side of the border, urging Pakistan to take effective steps against the terrorists involved in attacks in Afghanistan.
The alleged incident, if confirmed, is likely to fuel international rivalries in the Taliban.
"No incident of firing has occurred and he [Mansour] is neither injured nor killed," said Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, an ex-Taliban minister and a former head of its powerful political commission. The former minister, who is among Taliban leaders opposed to Mansour's leadership, spoke late Friday to VOA.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, speaking to VOA Friday, again dismissed the Afghan assertions that Mansour had been wounded or killed in a firefight near Quetta, saying he was not present at the alleged site nor was there a shootout there.
“People have been dispatched to collect the voice of our Amir ul Momineen [referring to the title of Mansour, meaning leader of the faithful] and release it to the media to kill these rumors,” Mujahid said.
He asserted that Mansour is “safely located in a remote area.” He said the Taliban hopes to receive his audio message by late Friday night or the next morning, without giving further details.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah has said authorities are not aware of the alleged firefight in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
“We have seen the media reports. We are not aware of this incident. However, we have noted that Taliban spokesperson has denied that any such firefight took place, Khalilullah told reporters in Islamabad.
Reports echo previous leader’s demise
In July, the Taliban also denied initial reports that its founder and longtime leader, Mullah Omar, had died more than two years before following a protracted illness allegedly in a Pakistani hospital.
That disclosure came just two days before a second round of peace negotiations was to take place in Pakistan between Taliban and Afghan officials. But the news of Omar’s death prompted the Taliban to pull out of the talks until it elected a new leader.
The group elected Mansour as its new leader a day after confirming the death of its founder, but some key Taliban leaders refused to pledge allegiance, prompting rifts in the group that had been united under Omar’s leadership for two decades.
The peace process has been halted since July, but there were new hopes for its resumption after this week’s “icebreaking” meeting between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Paris.