Kabul, Jul 31: The Afghan Taliban today praised their new leader, saying he was one of the most "trusted" associates of the late Mullah Mohammad Omar a statement likely meant to rally followers behind the leadership at a time of a deeply fractured insurgency.
On the ground, the insurgency continued with Afghan officials saying the Taliban had blown up a major bridge connecting two districts of Kunduz province the previous day, fought gunbattles with police and been run out of another district when residents took up arms against them.
Afghan forces also retook control today of Naw Zad district in Helmand province after three days of fierce fighting with the Taliban, the officials said.
The Taliban statement, which was emailed to The Associated Press, said the group's new leader, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor, had also been given the title of "Commander of the Faithful," conferring on him the supreme status held by Mullah Omar.
Mansoor has been an "active director" of the jihad, or holy war, for some years, it added. The statement did not give any details of when Mullah Omar died or from what illness.
The Taliban yesterday confirmed that Mullah Omar had died of an illness some time ago and said they elected Mansoor as his successor. The Afghan government announced Wednesday that the reclusive mullah had been dead since April 2013.
Mullah Omar was the one-eyed, secretive head of the Taliban, whose group hosted Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida in the years leading up to the Septtember 11, 2001 attacks and then waged a decade-long insurgency against US troops after the 2001 invasion that ended the Taliban rule.
He had not been seen in public since fleeing the invasion over the border into Pakistan. The Taliban reacted to the announcement of the Kabul government by pulling out of peace talks that were scheduled to take place today.
The Pakistani government, which was to host the meeting, said the negotiations were indefinitely postponed. The Afghan government said it regretted the postponement of the second formal face-to-face meeting with the Taliban.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry said Kabul "as always, is committed to the peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban movement and hopes that the aforementioned meeting will be held in the near future."
While the future of the peace process, which is a priority for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, is uncertain, the ministry added that "Afghanistan believes that in the current situation, peace negotiations are (more) possible than any time before."
The new leader of the Taliban is seen as close to Pakistan, which is believed to have sheltered and supported the insurgents through the war, now in its 14th year. This may put him in a position to revive the peace talks.