Fate of Afghan Taliban unclear after reports say he was wounded or killed

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN: Conflicting reports have deepened uncertainty surrounding the fate of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, after the insurgent Islamist group repeatedly denied he had been wounded in a gunfight after a dispute with other senior leaders.

Several sources in the Taliban have said that Mansour, whose claim to the leadership is rejected by a rival faction, was seriously wounded and possibly killed in a shootout at the house of another Taliban leader near Quetta in Pakistan on Tuesday.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said on Twitter Mansour was wounded in a firefight near Quetta, in western Pakistan, but there has been no direct evidence.

The Taliban's main spokesman has dismissed the reports as propaganda from Afghan intelligence services meant to create divisions within the movement, saying Mansour is alive and well.

However, scepticism has been fuelled by the secrecy that surrounded the death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, which was only confirmed in July, two years after he had died.

There has been no statement from Mansour himself so far and Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said enhanced security measures meant it was taking some time to contact him directly.

"Well, we are trying to locate him through our people to get his voice and release to the media to kill these rumours spread by the Afghan puppet government," Mujahid said.

The uncertainty has clouded prospects for any resumption in a peace process facilitated by Pakistan after talks broke down in July following the confirmation of Omar's death.

Afghan officials are cautious about what the signs of increasing fragmentation in the Taliban could mean.

"The rift is certainly weakening the movement and if they are not one united force, it could be easier to convince them for peace or eliminate them," said one official, who asked not to be identified.

Other Taliban members close to Mansour have confirmed he had been hurt in the gunfight, which followed a dispute over how to deal with the factional split in the movement, and had apparently been taken to a private hospital for treatment.

"We even don't know where he was taken but some of our people later told us he was admitted in a private hospital and that his condition was still critical," said one senior Taliban member close to Mansour.

Dozens of people were killed in the southeastern province of Zabul last month when fierce clashes broke out between rival Taliban factions.

"The local commanders, who are the backbone of the insurgency, seem to disobey their leaders' orders when it comes to subduing those who don't accept Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the supreme leader," the Afghan official said.