ISLAMABAD (AFP) - An American drone strike "likely killed" Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Pakistan's south-western province of Balochistan on Saturday, US officials said.
If confirmed, his death could change the course of the Afghan insurgency, which had grown fiercer under Mansour's leadership.
Mansour was appointed head of the Taleban in July 2015 following the revelation that the group's founder Mullah Omar had in fact been dead for two years.
He was widely blamed for leading the cover-up and the roster of candidates to succeed him will include many of the same names who entered the fray last year.
These include Omar's son Mullah Yakoub, who was favoured by some commanders as new leader but at the time judged too young and inexperienced, and Omar's brother Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund.
Mansour gave both of them senior positions on the group's leadership council and both are seen as favourites to take over.
Other possible successors are Mansour's deputies - influential religious leader Haibatullah Akhundzada and Sirajuddin Haqqani - leader of the feared Taleban-allied Haqqani network responsible for some of the worst attacks on Afghan and US targets.
"This could be the time Haqqanis will try to take over the whole movement," said Pakistani security analyst Amir Rana.
Almost certainly yes. Mansour had been particularly effective at subduing dissidents and eliminating rivals.
Mullah Dadullah, a prominent dissident commander, was killed last year in a gunfight with Mansour loyalists. And Mullah Rassoul, who formed a Taleban breakaway faction, had reportedly been detained by the Pakistani military - though his followers continue to fight on in his name.
If Mansour is indeed dead, analysts believe differences are once again likely to surface within the militants.
"This could help the peace process - if it allows the moderate faction to come to the surface," said Ahmed Rashid, author of the book "Descent into Chaos".
While infighting could buy some breathing space for beleaguered Afghan forces, the strategy of "divide and rule" may also backfire.
"First Mullah Omar and now Mansour - once you take the core out of a movement it could begin to unravel," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Islamabad based Centre for Research and Security Studies.
"On the other hand, peacemaking will become even more difficult if you are dealing with so many leaders. This has been the strategy for several years - to splinter them and make deals - but whether that works, we don't know."
According to Rana, Mansour's death could also pave the way for groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, long in the Taleban's shadow, to emerge stronger than before.
Pakistan was one of the Taleban's main allies during their 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, and has continued to exert influence over their insurgency.
In March Pakistan's top foreign affairs official Sartaj Aziz admitted openly what many had suspected for years - that the Afghan Taleban's top leadership were sheltering inside the country.
But with peace efforts stalled despite the formation in January of a four-country group - the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan - designed to kickstart the efforts, US patience could have been growing thin.
The fact that the strike took place deep inside Pakistani territory, and not in the border tribal regions where all but one previous such attack occurred, will raise speculation however that Islamabad acquiesced.
The last round of four-way talks took place in Islamabad on Wednesday.
At that stage, the US was ostensibly still willing to talk to the Taleban and their leader. Mansour's intransigence may have been his downfall.
"There was an agreement that if Taleban refuse to come to the table then Pakistan will cooperate with operations against the Taleban. They had a commitment," said analyst Rana.