Confusion surrounded the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was shot in
a firefight during an argument with commanders of the divided movement, after an Afghan government spokesman tweeted that he has died.
The Islamist group has vehemently rejected claims by militant sources and intelligence officials that Mansour was critically wounded in a shootout at an insurgent gathering
near the Pakistani city of Quetta.
A government spokesman today went further, claiming that Mansour did not survive the clash, which threatens to derail a fresh regional push to jump-start Taliban peace talks.
"Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour died of injuries," Sultan Faizi, the spokesman for the Afghan first vice president, wrote on Twitter without citing any evidence.
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Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the claim as "baseless", telling AFP that Mansour was alive and well. The group kept longtime chief Mullah Omar's death secret for two years.
The reported clash, which exposes dissent within the Taliban's top ranks, comes just four months after Mansour was appointed leader in an acrimonious leadership succession.
If confirmed, his death could intensify the power struggle within the fractious group and increase the risk of internecine clashes.
"If Mansour has died, the Taliban will do everything in its power to keep that a secret for as long as possible," Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.
"Mansour's death could spark new infighting over the Taliban leadership," he said.
The mystery surrounding the fate of Mansour further deepened after the Taliban released an audio clip yesterday 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 former Guantanamo Bay detainee, staunchly rejected the reports as "enemy propaganda".
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There was no independent verification of the file, which raised the question of why the Taliban have not yet released an audio or video clip from Mansour himself to bolster their
Mujahid said it would take some time to put together an audio message from Mansour as he was in a "far away place" where only a few trusted militant commanders are able to