KABUL (AFP) - Afghan Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was seriously injured in a firefight following a heated argument at a gathering of militant commanders, officials said Wednesday, exposing deepening divisions within the fractious militant movement.
It was not immediately clear if Mansour survived the clash, which occurred just four months after he was appointed Taleban supremo in a deeply acrimonious leadership succession.
Five other Taleban members were killed after a verbal duel cascaded out of control, triggering a gunfight at the meeting near the Pakistani town of Quetta, said Sultan Faizi, the spokesman for the Afghan first vice-president.
“Mansour was seriously injured. He was rushed to hospital and we are not sure if he survived his wounds,” Faizi told AFP, citing “credible information”.
The Taleban officially dismissed reports of Mansour’s injuiry as “absolutely baseless” but an Afghan intelligence official confirmed Faizi’s account, and insurgent sources also told AFP that Mansour had been injured.
The development comes amid a renewed regional push to jumpstart peace talks with the Taleban, which stalled after the militants belatedly confirmed longtime leader Mullah Omar’s death in late July.
A Taleban source close to Mansour’s group told AFP that a number of insurgent members were wounded and killed in the firefight.
“Akhtar Mansour is among the injured but the extent of his injuries is not clear,” he said, a claim that was corroborated by another insurgent source.
There was conflicting information on the location of the confrontation, with some sources claiming that it took place near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taleban.
But they all agreed the meeting was at the home of Abdullah Sarhadi, a commander in Mansour’s group and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.
“There were differences on some points which later turned into harsh words, then Sarhadi opened fire and the others returned fire,” the Taleban source said.
Mansour was declared Taleban leader on July 31 soon after the insurgents confirmed the death of Omar, who led the Islamist movement for some two decades.
But splits immediately emerged in the group, with some top leaders refusing to pledge allegiance to him, saying the process to select him was rushed and even biased.
Many were also unhappy that Omar’s death had been kept secret for two years – during which time annual Eid statements were issued in his name.
A breakaway faction of the Taleban led by Mullah Mohamed Rasool was formed last month, in the first formal split in the movement.
“The Taleban weren’t able to re-unify themselves as before following the death of Mullah Omar,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst.
“Mansour’s death, if confirmed, will be the ultimate blow to the Taliban, leading to further fragmentation of the group.” But despite the divisions, there has been no let up in insurgent attacks – and the Taleban has lately seen a new resurgence under Mansour.
They briefly captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz in September in their most spectacular victory in 14 years and opened new battlefronts across the country.
Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the militants, hosted a historic first round of peace negotiations in July.
But the dialogue process stalled soon after Omar’s death was announced.
The United States and China have been pushing for the process to restart, but frosty ties between Islamabad and Kabul have been hampering those efforts.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this week voiced a renewed willingness to revive the negotiations following a meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Paris.
Rasool’s hardline faction, reported to be aligned to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group making steady inroads in Afghanistan, also poses a major challenge to talks.
Afghan officials on Wednesday confirmed reports of the death of his deputy, Mullah Dadullah, a prominent commander and a major rival to Mansour.
The splinter group denies Dadullah’s death but officials insist he was killed last month in a clash with Mansour loyalists, increasing the prospect of reprisal attacks between the two factions.