By Mirwais Harooni and Jessica Donati
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan said on Wednesday it was investigating reports of the death of Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban movement behind an escalating insurgency against the government in Kabul.
The announcement came a day or so before a second round of peace talks had been tentatively scheduled, and uncertainty over the fate of the elusive Omar could deepen Taliban divisions over whether to pursue negotiations and who should replace him.
Omar, who would be in his mid-50s, has not been seen in public since fleeing when the Taliban was toppled from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001, and there has been speculation for years among militant circles that he was either incapacitated or had died.
“We are aware of the reports of the passing of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader,” Sayed Zafar Hashemi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, told reporters.
“We are still in the process of verifying those reports, and as soon as we get any more accurate information or identification … we will let the media and the people of Afghanistan know about it.”
The Taliban’s regular spokesman could not be reached for comment through normal channels.
Omar has been rumored to have died several times in the past, but none of the reports has been confirmed.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was looking into the reliability of the latest reports.
The comments came as preparations were under way for the next round of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, provisionally planned for Thursday or Friday in a location yet to be confirmed.
Ghani is keen to broker a settlement with insurgents, who have been gaining territory in pockets of the country and intensifying attacks on military and political targets.
Thousands of civilians and security personnel are killed each year in the violence, which has worsened since NATO withdrew most of its forces from the country at the end of 2014.
A defense official with the remaining coalition forces in Afghanistan questioned the timing of the Omar announcement.
“Why are they publicizing the news now, before the Afghan Taliban peace talks? Is it to weaken the Taliban’s position? It’s a big question.”
Renewed uncertainty over Omar’s fate is likely to intensify the internal tussle to replace him.
The Taliban is already split between senior figures who support talks with Kabul to end the 13-year war and others who want to continue to fight for power.
A senior Afghan Taliban commander based in neighboring Pakistan said Omar had died of natural causes, although he did not specify when. “We are at a crossroads, and it will take some time to resolve this (leadership) issue,” the militant said.
He added that a faction within the Taliban wanted one of Omar’s sons to take over, while another favored the promotion of political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who has been among those who support peace talks.
Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he believed Omar was dead, explaining his silence when NATO troops withdrew and when Ghani’s government took power.
“These death confirmations and rejections are all part of a big pitch for power within an increasingly fractured and rudderless organization,” he said of the Taliban.
A senior official from the Pakistani military, which historically has close ties to the Afghan Taliban and other Islamist militant groups in the region, could not confirm Omar’s death, but added:
“It’s worth asking why this news has come out now, when we are two days away from the second round of peace talks.
“Especially in light of reports that he died two years ago … why is this news being released now? It raises questions about the intentions of people who don’t want talks to go forward.”
Nicholas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, noted that alleged confirmation of Omar’s death had emanated from Pakistan.
“It … provides an opportunity for Afghans to turn the page on the past and focus on the conditions and arrangements by which Afghans can live together in peace,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)