Taliban releases audio message to show leader alive

KABUL/PESHAWAR: The Taliban released an audio message on Saturday it said was from its leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour to counter widespread reports that he had been wounded or killed in a shootout in Pakistan this week.

The 16-minute message said that the reports had been deliberately spread to create divisions in the Taliban.

"I am among my people. This incident never happened and it is not true. This is propaganda of the enemy," the man speaking on the message said.

It was not possible to verify whether the voice was really that of Mansour although some senior Taliban members said it appeared to be his.

The statement followed days of uncertainty over the fate of the Taliban leader, after multiple reports said he had been badly wounded in the shootout at the home of another commander in Quetta, western Pakistan, late on Tuesday.

Several Taliban members close to both Mansour and a rival faction that rejects his authority had said that he had been seriously wounded and taken to hospital. Some also said he had later died of his injuries.

The Islamist movement had repeatedly denied that Mansour had been hurt but the highly unusual audio message appeared to reflect concern at how widespread the reports had become and how damaging they could prove to unity.

Scepticism over the Taliban denials has been fuelled by the secrecy which surrounded the death of the movement's founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar. He died in 2013 but this was not confirmed until two years later.

The statement released on Saturday referred to an incident in Maidan Wardak province, southwest of Kabul on Friday, in which at least eight civilians were killed in front of a mosque by mortar rounds fired by Afghan government forces.

The Taliban has been struggling to contain divisions ever since Mansour, the movement's longtime number two, was named leader after Mullah Omar's death was confirmed in July.

His claim to the leadership has been rejected by some factions in the Taliban who have accused him of covering up Mullah Omar's death and seizing power without proper authority.

Dozens of people were killed in clashes between rival factions last month.