KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan police said on Thursday a top leader of a breakaway Taliban faction fighting for control of the Islamist movement had been killed by rival militants but the report was denied by a spokesman for his group.
The disputed claim adds uncertainty to a confused picture around the leadership battle within the Taliban, which has erupted into fighting this week, with dozens reported to have been killed.
Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, brother of a notorious Taliban commander killed in 2007, was among a group of dissidents who opposed the accession of another commander, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, when he assumed leadership of the movement this year.
Dadullah has been involved in fighting between the rival factions in the southern province of Zabul in recent days and his death, if confirmed, would be a major blow to the dissident group challenging Mansour.
Ghulam Jilani Farahi, deputy police chief in Zabul, said Dadullah had been killed on Wednesday by Islamic State militants but the claim was dismissed by a spokesman for Dadullah’s faction.
The faction spokesman, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said he had just spoken to Dadullah. “He is safe and sound,” he said.
“We know Mullah Mansour and his men are now spreading rumors about his killing as they suffered heavy losses at the hands of Mansoor Dadullah and his fighters in Zabul,” he added.
The rivalry adds further doubt to any prospect of a resumption of peace talks, which were broken off this year when the death was confirmed of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Mansour’s faction denied the fighting in Zabul was between rival Taliban factions. Instead, it said in a statement it was fighting Islamic State militants who had been mistreating the population there with extortion and kidnapping.
It said Dadullah had allied himself with Islamic State, called Daesh in Afghanistan, but said he had been acting alone, not as part of a breakaway Taliban faction.
The group did not say anything about his reported death.
Dadullah’s dissident Taliban group denied any connection with Islamic State and said Mansour was being funded from Iran.
“We neither support IS nor al Qaeda,” Niazi said. “There is no place for al-Qaeda and IS in Afghanistan. But we have proof of Iran’s involvement in this fighting,” he said, without providing details.
Reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Jibran Ahmad,; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel