Taliban disavows Afghan peace talks after leader declared dead
The Afghan Taliban, who have been fighting to topple the Kabul government for almost 14 years, said on Thursday they are "not aware" of a new round of peace talks due the following day in Pakistan — a statement indicating the group may be pulling out of the negotiations.
The statement came a day after the Afghan government said that Mullah Omar, the elusive supreme leader of the Islamist militant movement, had died two years ago in neighboring Pakistan.
Zafar Hashemi, a deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, made the announcement at a news conference Wednesday in Kabul.
News of Omar's demise is likely to intensify a struggle within the deeply divided group to succeed him, clouding chances of a peace process that had already run into trouble.
In a reminder of the threat posed by insurgents stepping up their campaign to overthrow the Western-backed government, the Taliban captured a district in the southern province of Helmand that foreign troops struggled to secure for years.
The Taliban has taken control of pockets of territory across the country since NATO withdrew most of its forces at the end of 2014, leaving the Afghan army and police to quell the violence. Thousands of people are killed each year.
"We have heard from the news media that the second round of talks between the Islamic Emirate and the Kabul administration will start soon in Pakistan or China," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
"The Islamic Emirate has handed all authorisation to its political office and they are not aware of this process," he added in a statement that did not refer to Omar.
The Taliban has yet to comment officially on his death.
Afghan and Pakistani officials had said that a second round of meetings would be held between Taliban representatives and the Kabul government this week. The two sides met for inaugural negotiations earlier this month in Pakistan.
Omar, the one-eyed, secretive head of the Taliban and an al-Qaida ally, led a bloody insurgency against US-led forces after they toppled him from his rule in Afghanistan in 2001.