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The Taliban distanced itself from ongoing peace talks with the Afghan government Thursday, amid reports that it has named a successor to deceased leader Mullah Omar.
Peace talks were expected to be held this week after the two sides sat down on July 7 for the first ever officially acknowledged face-to-face meetings. Many in the international community welcomed the development as a first step towards ending 13 years of devastating violence, which began in 2001 when the hardline Taliban was removed from power by a US-led invasion. Afghan officials had said that ceasefire discussions were set to take place.
But the Taliban's official spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid distanced the group from the meetings Thursday morning, saying its "political office" has no knowledge of them.
"Media outlets are circulating reports that peace talks will take place very soon… either in the country of China or Pakistan," Mujahid said in a statement, adding that its political office was "not aware of any such process".
Meanwhile, the group has reportedly appointed Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as its new leader, according to senior commanders cited by Reuters.
The Kabul government said on Wednesday that Mullah Omar died two years previously in Karachi, Pakistan. The reclusive leader had not been seen in public since 2001, when a US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban government, and rumours of his death have repeatedly circulated.
The Taliban has thus far refused to comment, despite repeated queries from VICE News and others.
A source from Afghanistan's Presidential Palace told VICE News the same day that Pakistani authorities had informed Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani that he'd died from natural causes three years ago. Afghan intelligence later also reported that Omar has been dead for more than two years. The US added weight to the reports describing them as "credible".
A message purported to be from Mullah Omar released for the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan earlier this month said that peace talks were not prohibited by religious teachings and that they would be coordinated through the political office. It had appeared to confirm that the meetings had the blessing of senior Taliban leadership.
"Concurrently with armed jihad, political endeavors, and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle and an integral part of prophetic politics," he said.
If his death is confirmed, however, it would cast doubt on the entire proceedings. Some commanders had redoubled their opposition to the Kabul government in recent months, and there have been internal differences on peace negotiations in the past.
Rival jihadist group the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which is increasing its influence and presence in the country, could be a further obstacle to peace. A number of Taliban commanders have defected and sworn allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi since it claimed in January that Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, was part of its "Khorosan" province. The uncompromisingly extreme newcomers could attract even more Taliban hardliners as the expand.
Its clearly a concern for the Taliban. The group's Deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor sent an open letter to Baghdadi last month, in which he said it "doesn't want to see interference in its affairs," insisting that there was room for only "one flag, one leadership, and one command" in the fight to establish Islamic rule in Afghanistan.
Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan since the bulk of US and allied foreign troops pulled out of the country at the beginning of 2014. Local forces are now responsible for most security duties, although some 13,000 foreign personnel remain in the country to provide training and conduct counter-terrorism operations.
Attacks on security forces intensified with the beginning of the Taliban's spring offensive in April, which has inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan military and police. Officials said on Tuesday that the Taliban had seized control of the administrative headquarters of Kohistanat province after days of fierce fighting. It also took control of a number of villages in neighboring Kunduz province, according to local officials.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck