KABUL: A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban on Sunday rejected a report that the group’s elusive supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, was killed in a blast in Pakistan.
“This report is utterly fake and far from reality…We reject this report…the enemy is under pressure and is trying to create worry by spreading such rumors,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News by phone from an undisclosed location.
The prominent Afghan daily, Hashte Subh, citing anonymous sources, reported on Sunday that the explosion had occurred in a safe house in Quetta, in Pakistan’s southwest Balochistan province, a few months ago.
“Credible sources from Quetta told Hashte Subh that Hibatullah Akhundzada, along with Matitullah, the head of intelligence, and Hafiz Abdul Majid, the chief of finance for the group, had been killed by the blast in Quetta,” excerpts from the reports said.
The group is said to be operating from Quetta after its ouster in a US-led invasion in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mujahid rejected another report claiming Akhundzada’s death a few months ago.
“Neither are our leaders in Pakistan nor can such incidents be kept hidden. The enemy is under heavy pressure and every day comes up with new propaganda,” he said, referring in part to the Kabul government.
Akhundzada, 60, succeeded Mullah Akhtar Mansour in May 2016 after Mansour was killed in a US drone strike on his vehicle near Quetta.
Mansour replaced Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban movement, in 2015 after Afghan government officials revealed that Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013. The Taliban kept Omar’s death a secret for almost two years.
Renowned as a hardline religious scholar, Akhundzada’s whereabouts were kept secret even from the Taliban’s field commanders for several years, for security reasons.
Last August, an explosion at a mosque in Quetta – which according to press reports was frequented by Akhundzada – resulted in his brother Ahmadullah’s death. His son was severely injured in the attack.
Akhundzada was reportedly absent from the mosque at the time of the incident which coincided with the start of the crucial intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar as part of a historic deal signed between the Taliban and Washington in February last year.
Rumors of his reported death have been circulating in Afghan circles for a while, especially since there has been no statement or audio recordings by Akhundzada for the past several months explicitly commenting on the Qatar talks and subsequent developments.
Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province – often referred to as the “birthplace” of the Taliban and its seat of power – told Arab News that Akhundzada has been unavailable for meetings in the past few months, as well.
“Some people who wanted to see Akhundzada some months back, were not able to do so and instead a message attributed to him was read to them,” he said.
A senior Afghan security official in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to the media, told Arab News that he had heard about Akhundzada being killed last summer, but could not confirm or deny it.
News of Akhundzada’s reported death comes in a pause in the intra-Afghan talks and a review of clauses in the Doha deal by the new US administration.
In the deal, all US-led foreign troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1.
While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has insisted that the troops remain and some NATO nations have also pushed for it, the deal might not see the light of day until the Taliban agree to announce a ceasefire with Kabul.
NATO members are expected to meet later this week to discuss whether or not to retain the troops in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, for their part, have repeatedly urged Washington to honor the deal that President Donald Trump’s administration signed.
“Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of the occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of our people and yours,” the Taliban said in a statement issued on Saturday.