By Sayed Salahuddin, KABUL, Reuters
A wanted Taliban insurgent leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Brother, was killed on Thursday in a U.S.-led raid in the southern province of Helmand, the Afghan Defense Ministry said, citing ground commanders.
But a Taliban member, Qari Mohammad Bashir, denied that Brother had been killed, saying the report was a government lie.
Brother served as a top military commander for the Taliban government until its removal from power in 2001 and was a member of the movement’s leadership council led by its fugitive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Mullah is a title for a Muslim cleric that many senior Taliban use. It was not clear if the name Brother, which other Taliban leaders have used to refer to him, was a nom de guerre.
The raid was launched after Taliban insurgents ambushed an Afghan army convoy between Sangin and Sarwan districts of Helmand, the ministry said in a statement.
Air support from U.S.-led troops was called in, said ministry spokesman, Zahir Azimi.
“He was killed, probably in ground fighting,” he said.
“Brother was on the black list,” Azimi said referring to a wanted U.S. list involving Taliban leaders and al-Qaida members.
Brother was a top military aide to Taliban leader Omar.
Taliban member Bashir, who has recently been involved in negotiations over the fate of a group of South Koreans kidnapped by the Taliban, dismissed the government report of the killing.
“This is a total lie,” Bashir told Reuters.
Taliban officials have in the past initially denied reports of the killing of senior members but later confirmed them as true.
On the other hand, the Afghan government has on several occasions erroneously reported the arrest or killing of top Taliban commanders.
An Afghan man convicted of killing four journalists in 2001, including two from Reuters, told his trial in 2004 that Brother had given the order that the four be killed.
Gunmen captured the journalists on the main road from Pakistan in the east of the country, while they trying to reach Kabul days after the defeated Taliban had withdrawn from the city. They were shot dead.
If confirmed, Brother’s killing would represent another big blow to the Taliban insurgency which has had several of its top leaders either killed or arrested in the past nine months.