Rumors swirl as Afghans say Taliban's Mullah Omar has moved

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2011 

This undated photo reportedly shows Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar.

AP

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan Taliban on Monday denied reports that their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, one of the most wanted men in Afghanistan, had been killed, as Afghan authorities said that he'd disappeared from Quetta, Pakistan, where he's thought to have spent the last 10 years hiding out.

An Afghan government official said he couldn't confirm Omar's death but that Afghan intelligence thought that Omar had left his longtime Quetta base four or five days ago and hadn't been seen since.

"We cannot confirm the death or killing of Mullah Omar," said Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the Afghan intelligence agency, "but we can confirm he has disappeared and we hope that he is dead."

In a phone interview with McClatchy, Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesman, scoffed at the idea that Omar had been killed.

"We heard the rumor, but it's a baseless allegation by some intelligence circles," he said. "We strongly reject this."

Mujahid said Omar was safe and in full command of his fighters in Afghanistan.

Omar, who was the head of the Afghan government when it protected Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaida attacks on the United States, is No. 2 on the U.S. list of wanted terrorists, after al Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, who moved to the top of the list after bin Laden's death May 2. The U.S. has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Omar's capture.

Tolo TV, an Afghan television channel, reported that Omar was killed as he was moving from Quetta to northern Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal region. Tolo said Omar was accompanied by former Pakistan intelligence chief Gen. Hamid Gul, who was the head of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence spy agency before the rise of the Taliban and is now a frequent commentator on Pakistan television.

Throughout the day, Gul appeared on Pakistani television to deny that he knew Omar or that there was reason to think that the Taliban leader was dead.

"I've never met Mullah Omar," Gul said. "But I am a moral supporter."

U.S. and Afghan officials have long thought that Omar has been living in Quetta with other senior Taliban officials since their government was toppled with U.S. assistance after 9/11. There's been speculation that in the wake of the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan three weeks ago, the U.S. has been pressuring Pakistan to move against the Taliban hideout in Quetta.

Omar's death would have little impact on the war in Afghanistan, said Arsala Rehmani, a former Taliban Cabinet minister who now serves on the country's high peace council, which President Hamid Karzai has charged with working toward reconciling the Taliban and the Afghan government.

"The killing of Mullah Omar will not solve the problem," Rehmani said. It might even make negotiations more difficult, as the Taliban shuffle their leadership to replace him, Rehmani said.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Saeed Shah in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.)

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