Journalists and officials are scrambling to establish the fate of the Afghan Taliban leader a day after rumors and reports suggested Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur was "seriously injured" in a firefight after a heated exchange at a meeting of top Taliban commanders in southwestern Pakistan.
A breakaway Taliban faction said its operatives had wounded or even assassinated Mansur, who leads the main Taliban organization that brands itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Mullah Mohibullah, who claims to have been close to slain dissident Taliban commander Mansur Dadullah, said the attack on Mansur was carried out in Nawi Killi, a suburb of Quetta, the provincial capital of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province.
"Our comrades tasked with the attack carried it out. We targeted Akhtar Mohammad Mansur and all his key confidants," he told a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in southern Afghanistan.
Mohibullah said they had plotted the attack for some time and followed Mansur and his lieutenants to a dinner in Nawi Killi on the evening of December 1. "Our friends first shot the guards standing outside and then went inside the compound and shot everyone," he said.
Mohibullah made the claims over telephone and, like most insurgent spokespeople and commanders, it was not possible to establish his real identity or the veracity of his claims.
The Taliban, however, rejected such claims. In a December 3 statement on their official Voice of Jihad website, the Taliban strongly rejected that their leader was injured in an attack in Kuchlak, a small town near Quetta.
"Our reliable sources say Amir ul-Momineen was not present in that area and there was not even any such incident in that region," the statement said, referring to Mansur by his Taliban leadership title, Commander of the Faithful.
The statement also rejected Afghan government claims that Mansur was shot after a heated exchange with a Taliban commander, Abdullah Sarhadi, who Afghan officials said was also killed in the shootout. To back its claims, the Taliban also posted an audio interview with Sarhadi who they maintain is deputy leader of the Taliban in the central Wardak province.
Again, it was difficult to establish the authenticity of the Taliban’s claims because the insurgents routinely make exaggerated statements regarding the government. The Taliban propaganda machine -- which consists of a chain of websites and produces sleek propaganda videos and verbose statements -- successfully hid the death of Taliban founding leader Mullah Mohammad Omar for more than two years.
Omar died in April 2013, but the Taliban only confirmed his death in July after Islamabad confirmed it to Kabul. Afghan sources say Kabul had demanded Omar's blessing for the nascent process after Islamabad brokered the first round of direct talks between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials on July 7.
Omar's death, however, unleased a deadly power struggle between key members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council named after the Pakistani city where it is believed to be based.
As Mansur scrambled to cajole exiled Taliban leaders in Pakistan and field commanders across Afghanistan to accept his leadership, many Quetta Shura leaders revolted and mobilized Afghan and Central Asian fighters to challenge his authority.
A series of deadly battles in the southern province of Zabul nearly crushed a faction led by Dadullah. The former Taliban commander, scores of his Afghan fighters, and Uzbek fighters allied with the Islamic State were killed in the fighting in remote mountainous districts of Zabul.
To add more confusion to the conflicting claims made by warring Taliban factions and Afghan officials over Mansur's shooting, unnamed Pakistani intelligence sources and a senior government minister in Balochistan are also offering contradictory information.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official told the AFP new agency Mansur had been "very seriously injured" in what he called a "heavy exchange of fire" at a gathering of militant commanders near the Pakistani city of Quetta. Many Afghan insurgent sources also confirmed that account to various Pakistani and international media outlets.
Balochistan's interior minister, however, said the reports about Mansur being wounded in a firefight were rumors. Sarfaraz Bugti told journalists the reports about such an incident near Quetta were baseless.
The reports about Mansur being injured come at a sensitive time. Islamabad is pushing hard to win Kabul's backing for resuming talks with the Taliban. The initiative, apparently backed by China and the United States, faces a key test at a regional diplomatic summit in Islamabad next week.
Kabul is deeply skeptical of Islamabad's intentions in facilitating talks with the Taliban, whom it says Pakistan covertly supports and openly shelters.
A December 3 statement by the Afghan government reiterated Kabul's stance that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is an "imposed war."
While confirming Mansur was injured in a firefight "outside Afghanistan," the statement said Kabul cannot confirm whether Mansur is alive.
"This incident shows that the terrorist leadership and organization are outside Afghanistan's borders," said the statement issued by the office of Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.
The statement didn't mince words in calling on Islamabad to end its support for the Afghan Taliban.
"Real progress in Afghanistan's peace process and the end of terrorist attacks are tied to Pakistan's sincere efforts against the terrorists," the statement concluded.