Afghan Taliban say 'unaware' of peace talks, no comment on Mullah Omar
The Taliban rejects reports on any fresh round of peace talks with Afghan government while making no comment on Mullah Omar's death
The Taliban Thursday rejected reports of any fresh round of peace talks expected this week with the Afghan government, while making no comment on Kabul's reported death of their leader Mullah Omar.
"Media outlets are circulating reports that peace talks will take place very soon... either in the country of China or Pakistan," the Taliban said in an English-language statement posted on their website.
"(Our) political office... are not aware of any such process."
The statement marked the first comment from the group waging an almost 14-year insurgency in Afghanistan since Kabul on Wednesday reported that Mullah Omar died two years ago in Pakistan, citing "credible information".
The insurgents have not officially confirmed the death of their spiritual leader, who has not been seen publicly since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban government in Kabul.
Rumours of Omar's ill-health and even death have regularly surfaced in the past, but Wednesday's claims from Kabul marked the first such confirmation from the Afghan government.
Omar's death would mark a significant blow to an almost 14-year Taliban insurgency, which is riven by internal divisions and threatened by the rise of the ISIS group in South Asia.
The announcement had also cast doubt over the second round of peace talks, which were expected to kick off on Friday.
Afghan officials had pledged to press for a ceasefire in those negotiations.
Afghan officials sat down with Taliban cadres earlier this month in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency.
They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, but many ground commanders openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement.
Taliban insurgents have captured a district in the southern province of Helmand that foreign troops struggled to secure for years, in the latest setback for Afghan government forces now largely battling the militants on their own.
News of the fighting came a day after the government said elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar had died in Pakistan more than two years ago.
Officials in Helmand said the Taliban has Now Zad district on Wednesday after two days of fighting.
"Right now our security forces are still on the outskirts of the district and fighting with the Taliban," said provincial police chief spokesman Obaidullah Obaid.
Obaid declined to comment on casualties but residents of the area, speaking to Reuters by telephone, said the bodies of members of the government security forces and Taliban were lying in the streets after the battle.
The Taliban confirmed the capture of the district centre, saying weapons and ammunition had been seized.
Helmand has been a Taliban stronghold and centre of opium production for years.
British and U.S. troops began a concerted effort to secure the province in 2006 and some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place over subsequent years in small towns like Now Zad, most of them in the fertile Helmand river valley.
More than a dozen U.S. Marines and British troops were killed in fighting over Now Zad. Most foreign troops left Afghanistan last year.
The Taliban have also made gains in the northern provinces of Sar-e-Pol and Badakhshan in recent days.
The Afghan government is trying to get peace talks going but little progress has been made in initial meetings.