KABUL • Afghanistan yesterday said it was investigating reports that Mullah Omar, the leader of the militant Taleban movement behind an escalating insurgency, was dead.
The elusive Omar has not been seen in public since he fled after the Taleban was toppled from power by a US-led coalition in 2001.
There has been speculation for years among militant circles that he was either incapacitated or had died. The US State Department has a US$10 million (S$13.6 million) bounty on the militant.
"We are aware of the reports of the passing of Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader," Mr Sayed Zafar Hashemi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, told reporters. "We are still in the process of verifying those reports, and as soon as we get any more accurate information or identification... we will let the media and the people of Afghanistan know about it."
The comments came as preparations started for the next round of peace talks between Kabul and the Taleban, either today or tomorrow, at a location yet to be confirmed.
Renewed uncertainty over Omar's fate could deepen divisions within the militant movement as rival commanders position to succeed him, in a possible setback for the fledgling peace process. The Taleban is already split between senior figures who support talks with Kabul to end the 13-year war and others who want to fight on.
A senior Afghan Taleban commander based in neighbouring Pakistan said Omar had died of natural causes, although he did not specify when.
"We are at a crossroads, and it will take some time to resolve this (leadership) issue," the militant said. He added that a group within the Taleban wanted one of Omar's sons to take over, while another favoured the promotion of political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who has been among those who support peace talks.
A written message purportedly from Omar released earlier this month indicated that he also approved of dialogue, but there was no way of confirming if the document was genuine.
A senior official from the Pakistani military, which historically has close ties to the Afghan Taleban and other Islamist militant groups in the region, said: "It is worth asking why this news has come out now, when we are two days away from the second round of peace talks.
"Especially in the light of reports that he died two years ago... why is this news being released now? It raises questions about the intentions of people who don't want talks to go forward."