Captured Taliban spokesman claims militant leader lives in Pakistan

Thursday, January 18, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A captive Taliban spokesman has told Afghan agents that the hard-line militia's chief Mullah Omar lives in southwestern Pakistan and is protected by that country's powerful intelligence service, according to video of his questioning given to reporters Wednesday. Pakistan called the claim "totally baseless."

Omar's whereabouts have been a mystery since he went into hiding after the Taliban was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion after the 9-11 attacks. The U.S. government has offered a $10 million bounty for his capture.

Mohammad Hanif, a Taliban spokesman apprehended Monday near the border with Pakistan, talked about Omar during his interrogation by Afghanistan's intelligence service, which distributed to reporters a video CD of what it said was his questioning.

"He lives in Quetta," Hanif said of Omar on the video, which showed him sitting in an oversized chair being peppered with questions by Afghan agents in a dimly lit room. "He is protected by ISI," Hanif said in a quiet voice, referring to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

President Hamid Karzai made a similar allegation during an interview with The Associated Press last year, saying Omar lives in Quetta and is protected by Pakistan's security services.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao rejected Hanif's claim on Wednesday, saying "this is totally baseless."

"We have no information on the whereabouts of Mullah Omar. He is not living in Pakistan," he told the AP.

"Afghan intelligence has made contradictory statements since the arrest of this so-called spokesman of Taliban. We don't know who this person is," Sherpao said.

Hanif's predecessor as Taliban spokesman, Mullah Hakim Latifi, was arrested in 2005 by Pakistani police.

In the CD recording of his interrogation, the 26-year-old Hanif also alleges the former head of Pakistan's intelligence service, Hamid Gul, was supporting Taliban militants in their fight against Afghan and foreign troops.

Sayed Ansari, the spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service, said Hanif's real name is Abdulhaq Haji Gulroz, and he is an Afghan from Nangarhar's Chaparhar district. Ansari said Hanif has been living in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Ansari has given conflicting accounts of Hanif's arrest. He said Tuesday that Hanif was nabbed after crossing the border from Pakistan; on Wednesday he told reporters the arrest was made about 15 miles outside the Nangahar provincial capital of Jalalabad.

Another purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, confirmed Hanif's arrest in a telephone call from an undisclosed location. He said the Taliban's governing body has appointed a new spokesman, Zadiullah Mujahid, and the arrest would not affect the Taliban campaign.

Western and Afghan officials have claimed a number of recent successes against Taliban leaders.

On Tuesday, NATO-led troops and Afghan forces detained a Taliban commander during a raid on a compound in southern Afghanistan, the alliance said. NATO spokesman Squadron Leader Dave Marsh said the militant leader led insurgents in the Panjwayi district of neighboring Kandahar province, where last summer NATO troops waged their biggest ground offensive in the Western alliance's history.

"This seizure of a Taliban commander once again shows that there is nowhere to hide for insurgent leaders," Marsh said.

The militant, whom NATO did not identify, had fled a recent offensive by Afghan and NATO forces in the south of the country, the alliance said. He was detained in the Gereshk district of Helmand province.

Last month, a U.S.-led coalition airstrike killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a key associate of Omar and the highest-ranking Taliban leader slain by the U.S.-led coalition since the 2001 offensive launched against the regime for hosting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Over the past year, the Taliban have launched a record number of attacks, and some 4,000 people have died violently, according to a tally by The Associated Press based on reports from Afghan, NATO and coalition officials.

Associated Press Writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Noor Khan in Kandahar and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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