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Afghan Taliban Picks Mansour Successor 05/25 06:59

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The Afghan Taliban confirmed on Wednesday that 
their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week 
and that they have appointed a successor -- a scholar known for extremist views 
who is unlikely to back a peace process with Kabul.

   The announcement came as a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying court 
employees in the Afghan capital, killing at least 11 people, an official said. 
The Taliban promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.

   In a statement sent to the media, the Taliban said their new leader is 
Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of Mansour's two deputies. The insurgent 
group said he was chosen at a meeting of Taliban leaders, which is believed to 
have taken place in Pakistan, but offered no other details.

   Mansour was killed in Pakistan on Saturday when his vehicle was struck by a 
U.S. drone plane, an attack believed to be the first time a Taliban leader was 
killed in such a way inside Pakistani territory.

   Pakistani authorities have been accused both by Kabul and the West of giving 
shelter and support to some Taliban leaders --- an accusation that Islamabad 
denies. The insurgents have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government 
since 2001, when their own Islamist regime was overthrown by the U.S. invasion.

   The United States and the Afghan government have said that Mansour had been 
an obstacle to a peace process, which ground to a halt when he refused to 
participate in talks with the Afghan government earlier this year. Instead, he 
intensified the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.

   Mansour had officially led the Taliban since last summer, when the death of 
the movement's founder, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar became public. But he 
is believed to have run the movement in Mullah Omar's name for more than two 
years. The revelation of Mullah Omar's death and Mansour's deception led to 
widespread mistrust, with some senior Taliban leaders leaving the group to set 
up their own factions.

   Some of these rivals fought Mansour's men for land, mostly in the opium 
poppy-growing southern Taliban heartland.

   Senior Taliban figures have said Mansour's death could strengthen and unify 
the movement, as he was in some ways a divisive figure. The identity of his 
successor was expected to be an indication of the direction the insurgency 
would take, either toward peace or continued war.

   Akhundzada is a religious scholar who served as the Taliban's chief justice 
before his appointment as a deputy to Mansour. He is known for issuing public 
statements justifying the existence of the extremist Taliban, their war against 
the Afghan government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. His 
views are regarded as hawkish, and he could be expected to continue in the 
aggressive footsteps of Mansour, at least in the early days of his leadership.

   He was close to Mullah Omar, who consulted with him on religious matters. A 
convincing orator, Akhunzada was born in Kandahar --- the capital during the 
Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.

   A member of the Noorzai tribe, he is said to be aged around 50 years, and 
comes from a line of religious scholars. He leads a string of madrassas, or 
religious schools --- figures in the Taliban say up to 10 --- across Pakistan's 
southwestern Baluchistan province.

   A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, told The 
Associated Press that the choice of Akhundzada was "a very wise decision." 
Akhundzada was well respected among Taliban of all ranks, and could be a 
unifying force for the fractured movement, Ghous said.

   Wednesday's statement said two new deputies had also been appointed --- both 
of whom had earlier been thought to be the main contenders for the top job.

   One of them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was also one of Mansour's deputies 
and who leads the notorious Haqqani network --- the faction behind some of the 
most ferocious attacks in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The other is 
the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoub, who controls the Taliban military 
commissions for 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

   Akhundzada's appointment came as a surprise to some, including Ghous, who 
said that despite not being a top contender but a "third candidate," the new 
leader would rise above any personal animosity or conflict that might have 
arisen should either Haqqani or Yaqoub have been chosen.

   The Taliban statement called on all Muslims to mourn Mansour for three days, 
starting from Wednesday. It also attempted to calm any qualms among the rank 
and file by calling for unity and obedience to the new leader.

   Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in 2014, assiduously courted 
Pakistan in an effort to bring the Taliban into a dialogue that would lead to 
peace talks. Mansour, however, refused, choosing instead to intensify the war 
once the international combat mission drew down to a training and support role 
in 2015.

   In an unusual move, exiled Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who heads the 
militant Hezb-i-Islami group, offered condolences to Mansour's family, 
according to Mullah Hameedullah, a member of the Taliban's religious council.

   "Hekmatyar said he will offer prayers for Mullah Akhtar Mansour's soul," 
Hameedullah said.

   Hekmatyar --- who is on U.S. and United Nations blacklists, as was Mansour 
--- has agreed to a tentative peace deal with the Afghan government that could 
see him return to Kabul in the coming months. Officials and Hekmatyar's 
representatives have said that the truce, which is yet to be signed by the two 
parties, could serve as a template for a future deal with the Taliban to end 
the war.  


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