PESHAWAR (Pakistan) • Conflicting reports have deepened uncertainty over the fate of Afghan Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, after the group repeatedly denied he had been hurt in a gunfight following a dispute with other leaders.
Several sources in the Taleban say Mansour, whose claim to the leadership is rejected by a rival faction, was seriously wounded and possibly killed in a shoot-out at the house of another Taleban leader near Quetta on Tuesday.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said on Twitter that Mansour had been wounded, but there has been no direct evidence.
A government spokesman went further, claiming yesterday that Mansour had not survived the clash.
"Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour died of injuries," Mr Sultan Faizi, a spokesman for the Afghan first vice-president, said on Twitter, without citing any evidence.
The Taleban's main spokesman has dismissed the reports as "baseless" and propaganda from Afghan intelligence services meant to create divisions within the movement, saying Mansour is alive and well.
The mystery deepened further after the Taleban released an audio clip on Thursday purportedly from the militant at whose house the firefight is said to have occurred.
A man claiming to be Abdullah Sarhadi, a commander in Mansour's group and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, rejected the reports as "enemy propaganda". There was no independent verification of the clip, which raised questions as to why the Taleban have not yet released an audio or video clip from Mansour himself.
Taleban 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," he said.
Other Taleban members close to Mansour say he was hurt in the gunfight and apparently taken to a private hospital for treatment.
"We even don't know where he was taken, but some of our people later told us that he was admitted in a private hospital and that his condition was still critical," said one senior member close to Mansour.
Scepticism has also been fuelled by the secrecy that surrounded Taleban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar's death, which was confirmed only in July, two years after he died.
"The sheer volume of rumours... will pressure the Taleban to offer proof that he's alive," a Western official in Kabul said. "Simply posting denials... won't be considered credible enough, especially after Omar's death was concealed for years."
The reported clash came just four months after Mansour was appointed leader in an acrimonious leadership succession.
The uncertainty has clouded prospects for any resumption of a peace process facilitated by Pakistan, after talks broke down in July following the confirmation of Omar's death.
A breakaway Taleban faction led by Mullah Mohamed Rasool was formed last month. Afghan officials on Wednesday confirmed reports that his deputy, Mullah Dadullah, was killed last month in a gunfight with Mansour loyalists.
Afghan officials are cautious over what the signs of growing fragmentation in the Taleban 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.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE