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Afghan Taliban confirm death of Mullah Omar, say group has new leader

Sources tell Al Jazeera that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is new leader; peace talks with government postponed

Afghan Taliban sources confirmed to Al Jazeera on Thursday that the movement’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is dead. They also said that their leadership assembly, or Shura Council, decided at a meeting Wednesday night and Thursday to elect Mullah Akhtar Mansoor to succeed Omar as the new "Commander of the Faithful in Afghanistan.” 

Also Thursday, Pakistan's foreign ministry told Al Jazeera it is postponing a planned second round of peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban in Afghanistan in light of the reports of Omar's death.

The Afghan Taliban, which has been fighting to topple the Kabul government for almost 14 years, said on Thursday it is "not aware" of the new round of talks due to begin Friday in Pakistan — a statement indicating the group may be pulling out of the negotiations.

The Afghan intelligence service asserted Wednesday that Omar died in a Karachi hospital more than two years ago. The Taliban’s website had published statements attributed to Omar up to five days before the Afghan intelligence service’s announcement — but following the Afghan intelligence report, the group confirmed on Twitter that Omar had died. 

The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is eager to pursue a peace process, said Omar's death would strengthen conditions for the peace process, a priority since he took office last year. But analysts have said the Taliban’s leadership has been divided over whether to take part.

Islamabad hosted the first round of the official, face-to-face discussions earlier this month. The meeting was supervised by U.S. and Chinese representatives, and ended with both sides agreeing to meet again.

This week, Afghan and Pakistani officials had said the second round would take place Friday in the Pakistani resort town of Murree. But Thursday's statement from the Taliban, which calls itself the "Islamic Emirate," contradicted that.

"The Islamic Emirate has handed all agency powers in this regard to its Political Office, and they are not aware of any such process," the statement said, referring to the talks.

The Taliban has been fighting to overthrow the Afghan government since 2001, when the United States led an invasion to topple the Taliban government.

Omar's leadership, which endured for years despite numerous past reports of his death, provided a unifying force for fighters on the ground and for those both in the Afghan government and Taliban leadership who have pushed the peace process forward in the months since Ghani took office.

Omar’s death may expose rifts at the top of the organization, which is widely believed to be split among those who support and reject contact with Ghani's government.

A further fracturing in the Taliban ranks could lead to a power struggle. Already, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an armed group that has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, is believed to have recruited some disaffected Taliban members to its ranks as it tries to establish a presence in Afghanistan.

Ghani has sought Pakistan's help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations, since Islamabad is believed to wield influence over the group.

A diplomat who is based in Kabul and is familiar with the peace process told The Associated Press that the "government's position has been since Ashraf Ghani became president that the real negotiation is between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters on the ongoing talks.

After the U.S.-led invasion, remnants of the Taliban led by Omar fled over the border into Pakistan, where they are believed to have the protection of Islamabad. Omar has not been seen in public since then, though statements have been issued in his name giving credence to Taliban denials of his death.

Most recently, a statement purportedly by Omar was issued on the occasion of this month's Eid-al-Fitr holiday, expressing support for the peace talks.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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