KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency said Wednesday that the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has been dead for more than two years.
The one-eyed, secretive head of the Taliban hosted Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and then waged a decade-long insurgency against U.S. troops after the 2001 invasion that ended Taliban rule.
He has not been seen in public since fleeing the invasion over the border into Pakistan.
Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, said Mullah Omar died in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi in April 2013.
“We confirm officially that he is dead,” he told The Associated Press.
It was not immediately clear why his death was only being announced now. Neither the Taliban nor Pakistani officials could immediately be reached for comment.
A Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, had earlier dismissed rumors of Mullah Omar’s death as “speculation” designed to disrupt peace talks.
Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban are due to meet on Friday in Pakistan for a second round of official talks aimed at ending the war that is nearing its 14th year.
“He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there,” Sediqi said, without elaborating. He said the Afghan government had been aware of Mullah Omar’s death for two years and had made it public on a number of occasions.
Earlier, Zafar Hashemi, the deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said the government was investigating reports that the Taliban leader was dead.
Confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death could complicate the peace process as it removes a figurehead for the insurgents, who until now have appeared to act collectively but are believed to be split on whether to continue the war or negotiate with Ghani’s government.
Ending the war has been a main priority for Ghani since he took office last year.
“Whether he is dead or alive is important because he is the collective figure for the Taliban,” said a Western diplomat with connections to the Taliban leadership. “If he is dead, it would be much more difficult to get negotiations with the Taliban because there would be no collective figure to rally around and take collective responsibility for entering peace talks.”
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists about the situation.
Taliban insurgents have spread their war from the traditional southern and eastern heartlands bordering Pakistan to northern Afghanistan this year.
In recent weeks, the insurgents have taken control of remote districts in Badakhshan province, and continue to launch mass attacks on districts in Kunduz province, a strategically located region bordering Tajikistan.
The strategy has spread Afghan military resources thin after U.S. and NATO forces ended their combat mission at the end of last year.