KABUL (AFP) - The Taleban on Thursday confirmed the death of their leader Mullah Omar but gave no word about who would take charge of the movement still waging a bloody insurgency in Afghanistan.
The militants said Omar died of “sickness", citing family members, a day after the Afghan government said the one-eyed warrior-cleric had passed away in Pakistan two years ago.
Omar’s death marks a significant blow to the Taleban, which is riven by internal divisions and threatened by the rise of the Islamic State group, the Middle East militant outfit that is making steady inroads in Afghanistan.
“The leadership of the Islamic Emirate and the family of Mullah Omar... announce that leader Mullah Omar died due to a sickness,” a Taleban statement said, using the movement’s official name.
The Taleban now face the tricky process of choosing a successor to the near-mythical figure who led them for some 20 years.
Militant sources have told AFP that Taleban deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour is leading the race to take over, but stressed that no final decision has been taken yet.
A Taleban official said the process had several stages: the group’s ruling council would choose a candidate who must then be approved by a college of religious clerics.
Omar’s son Mullah Yakoub was favoured by some commanders, sources said, but at 26 he was considered too young and inexperienced for such a key role.
TALKS IN LIMBO
A fresh round of peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government, planned for Friday in Pakistan, has been postponed, according to Islamabad.
The ministry said the Taleban leadership had asked for the postponement “in view of the reports regarding the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty”.
Earlier, the militants had distanced themselves from the process, casting doubt over its possible effectiveness.
“Media outlets are circulating reports that peace talks will take place very soon... either in the country of China or Pakistan,” the Taleban said in an English-language statement posted on their website on Thursday.
“(Our) political office... are not aware of any such process.”
Omar had not been seen publicly since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taleban government in Kabul.
Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told AFP on Wednesday that Omar died in hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi “under mysterious circumstances”.
The Taleban statement did not say when he died but said “his health condition deteriorated in the last two weeks” and “not for a single day did he go to Pakistan”.
It added that three days of religious ceremonies would be held “to pray for the soul of Mullah Omar”.
News of his death comes just before Taleban and Afghan officials were due to sit down for a second round of talks aimed at ending the militants’ near 14-year fight against the Kabul government.
Afghan officials met Taleban cadres earlier this month in Murree, a holiday town in the hills north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency.
They had agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, and Afghan officials pledged to press for a ceasefire in the second round.
Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said the loss of their long-time leader was a huge blow for the Taleban.
“Announcement of Omar’s death will spark an existential crisis for the Taleban, and the last thing that will be on its mind are peace talks. It will need to focus on its survival, not talks,” Kugelman told AFP.
A statement from the Afghan presidential palace on Wednesday, however, said grounds for the discussions are more solid now than before, and implored all insurgents to join the peace process.
But many of the insurgents’ ground commanders have openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taleban negotiators, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement.
The split within the Taleban over the peace process has been worsened by the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State group, which last year declared a “caliphate” across large areas of Iraq and Syria under its control.
The Taleban warned IS recently against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.