Taliban supreme Mullah Omar died two years ago in Pakistan, Afghanistan said on Wednesday, after unnamed government and militant sources reported the demise of the reclusive warrior-cleric.
The insurgents have not officially confirmed the death of the supreme leader of the Taliban, who has not been seen publicly since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban government in Kabul.
Rumours of Omar’s ill-health and even death have regularly surfaced in the past, but the latest claims – just two days before fresh peace talks with the insurgents – mark the first such confirmation from the Afghan government.
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” a statement from the presidential palace said.
Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, said that Omar died in a Karachi hospital “under mysterious circumstances”.
Omar’s death would mark a significant blow to an almost 14-year insurgency, which is riven by internal divisions and threatened by the rise of the Islamic State group in South Asia.
The official announcement comes after unnamed government and militant sources told media that the one-eyed leader died two or three years ago, and after the Afghan government said it was investigating reports of the death.
“We can confirm that Mullah Omar died two years ago… in Pakistan due to an illness,” a senior official in Afghanistan’s national unity government told AFP earlier.
“He was buried in Zabul province (in southern Afghanistan),” said the official, citing Afghan intelligence sources.
Omar’s death could trigger a power struggle within the Taliban, observers say, with insurgent sources claiming that Mullah Mansour, the current deputy, and Omar’s son Mohammad Yakoub are both top contenders to replace him.
The insurgents in April published a descriptive biography of the “charismatic” supreme leader in a surprise move apparently aimed at countering the creeping influence of the Islamic State group within their ranks.
The Taliban have reportedly seen defections to IS in recent months, with some members expressing disaffection with the low-profile leader Omar.
The biography, posted on the Taliban’s official website to commemorate Omar’s apparent 19th year as supreme leader, described him as being actively involved in “jihadi activities” – trying to dispel speculation that he had died.
Earlier this month in a message released in Omar’s name, the leader was quoted as hailing the peace process as “legitimate”.
The comments, the first reputedly made by Omar on the nascent dialogue, eased concerns at the time that the process lacked the leadership’s backing.
But a member of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s governing council, voiced doubt over whether that message – released just before Eid al-Fitr – was from Mullah Omar himself.
“For the last few years he has not attended any big gathering, neither has he sent any audio message to his followers,” the member, who requested anonymity, told AFP on Wednesday.
“That gives us reason to believe that he has died.”
Afghan officials sat down with Taliban cadres earlier this month in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency.
They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, but many ground commanders openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators, exposing dangerous faultiness within the movement.
Afghan officials are set to meet Taliban militants later this week for a second round – expected to take place in Pakistan – with the government pledging to press for a ceasefire.