ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The leader of a breakaway faction of the Taliban is leading his fighters in Afghanistan, his deputy said on Tuesday, contradicting three senior members of the Islamist group and denying a newspaper report that he had been detained.
Three senior Taliban told Reuters that Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, who leads a faction that has rejected the authority of the Islamist movement’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Mansour, had been detained two weeks ago in Baluchistan province on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper said that Rasoul was being held by Pakistani authorities. Quoting two unnamed Taliban leaders, the newspaper said Rasoul was held in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan following heavy fighting in recent months with militants loyal to Mansour.
Rasoul’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, dismissed the report as “propaganda of our enemies” and two Pakistani security officials also denied the report.
“Mullah Rasoul is in Afghanistan and leading his fighters,” Niazi said. But he added that his group’s survival did not depend on one leader.
“Our resistance will not stop with the arrest or killing of Mullah Rasoul or any other leader,” Niazi said.
The mixed reports add a further twist to the opaque nature of the leadership of the Taliban, who control or threaten more Afghan territory than at any time since their hard-line government was toppled in 2001.
Rasoul is the biggest rival to Mansour, who claimed the leadership of the Taliban last year after news emerged of founder Mullah Omar’s death and who has been shoring up support against rival factions.
His faction has firmly opposed joining peace talks with the Afghan government and accuses Mansour of covering up Mullah Omar’s death and being under the control of Pakistan.
One senior member of the faction loyal to Mullah Mansour said that Rasoul had been in hiding in the western Afghan city of Herat but had recently decided to move to Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders are believed to be living.
Two senior Pakistani security officials denied Rasoul was in Pakistani custody.
“Our last information is that he fled infighting in Afghanistan,” one of the officials said, requesting anonymity.
Alongside its recent battlefield successes, the movement has been in turmoil since last year when it was forced to admit that Mullah Omar had died two years earlier.
Mansour was reported to have been shot and wounded in a leadership dispute last year and dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in clashes between the two factions in the southern Afghan province of Zabul.
Taliban officials denied reports last year of Mansour’s injuries.
Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie