PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mansour, called for unity in a message released on Tuesday to mark the coming Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, but a rival faction issued its own statement calling for a new leadership vote.
The competing messages come days after a group of dissident Taliban commanders denounced Mansour’s recent appointment to replace the Islamist militant group’s late leader, Mullah Omar.
Divisions within the Taliban have threatened to derail fledgling peace talks with the Afghan government and allow the Islamic State group to expand its foothold in the region.
Mansour was hastily appointed Taliban leader in July after Afghan intelligence leaked the news that the reclusive Omar had been dead for more than two years. Mansour was Omar’s deputy.
Some Taliban commanders oppose Mansour, blaming him for concealing news of Omar’s death and describing his appointment as irregular. Mansour said divisions were a creation of the enemy.
“The creation of different groups ... is the last conspiracy of the invaders for continuation of the American proxy war in Afghanistan,” he said in the Eid message.
The rival group issued its own statement saying that after Mullah Omar’s death “the leadership that was established was unprincipled and organized” and calling for a new shura, or gathering of clerics, to choose a new leader.
Taliban sources said Mansour’s rivals including battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir were behind the second statement.
Mansour in his own statement also raised the possibility of resurrecting peace talks with the Afghan government, but warned others not to get involved. The first round of negotiations was held in Pakistan in July but collapsed after it became known Omar had been dead for two years.
“If the country is not under occupation, the problem of the Afghans can be resolved through intra-Afghan understanding. Any foreign pressure under the pretext of resolving the Afghan problem is not going to resolve the problem but will rather create other problems,” Mansour said.
Many commanders were suspicious of the role of neighboring Pakistan in hosting the talks. Pakistan and Afghanistan have separate but allied Taliban insurgencies and have long accused each other of not doing enough to stamp out Taliban bases on either side of the border.
Some Afghan Taliban feel that elements in the Pakistani security forces want to manipulate the Afghan insurgency for their own purposes. The Pakistanis say they are hosting the talks in good faith.
Mansour is considered by many Taliban to be too close to Pakistan.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Paul Tait and Ralph Boulton