The Afghan Taliban has denied reports its leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was killed in a US strike in Pakistan, as Washington and Kabul said it was probable he was dead.
Earlier on Saturday, US officials told several media organisations that drone attacks authorised by President Barack Obama had likely killed him and another Taliban member.
A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the strike appeared to have been successful, and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said Mansoor was “more than likely” dead.
The Taliban has a history of denying reports that could hurt its standing.
False rumours on the deaths of the group’s officials, though, have circulated before. In December, Afghan officials said Mansoor had died after a gunfight. The Taliban later released an audio message from him in which he denied he had been killed.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that the Taliban chief posed a “continuing imminent threat” to US personnel in Afghanistan and to Afghans, and was a threat to peace.
“This action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners as they work to build a more stable, united, secure and prosperous Afghanistan,” Kerry said.
Kerry said the leaders of both Pakistan and Afghanistan were notified of the strike but he did not say whether they were told before or after the attack took place. He said he had phoned Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Islamabad, said Pakistan officials had denied a strike had happened on their side of the border.
“However, they are not ruling out if the attack took place on the Afghan side of the border,” he said. “Interestingly the Taliban sources we have spoken to are denying that their leader has been killed in the attack.”
US officials said the strike happened at about 1000 GMT, which would have put it late on Friday night in the target area.
Several drones targeted the men as they travelled in a vehicle in a remote part of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, one US official said.
The Pentagon confirmed the US army had tried to kill Mansoor, but gave no information about his condition.
“We are still assessing the results of the strike and will provide more information as it becomes available,” spokesman Peter Cook said.
“Mansoor has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict.”
Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Vall, reporting from Kabul, said the timing of the strike was significant because the Afghan government warned it would take action against the group for not participating in the talks .
“They refused to show at the negotiating table, so the Afghan President recently said that now its time for us to act and go after them. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), made up of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States were urged to show their military role,” he said
“If it is proved that Mullah Mansoor has died in the strike, it would be a major blow to the Taliban.”
Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, said the report had to be taken seriously.
“There has been an increase in the Taliban’s casualties,” Samad told Al Jazeera. “This particular news, if confirmed, is going to be a double blow to the Taliban – not only from a political leadership point of view, but I also think it will be translated on the battlefield.”
Mansoor was appointed Taliban leader last year after the death of Mullah Omar. He joined the Taliban in 1995, a year after it was founded, going on to hold important positions within the group.[Source: Al Jazeera]