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Afghan Taliban Leader 'Likely Killed' In U.S. Air Strike

Alleged Taliban militants stand handcuffed near seized weapons in Nangarhar province (file photo).
Alleged Taliban militants stand handcuffed near seized weapons in Nangarhar province (file photo).

The Pentagon has announced it carried out an air strike against Taliban leader Mullah Akthar Mansur, and a U.S. official said Mansur was "likely killed."

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the attack occurred in a remote region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border early on May 21. He said the United States was studying the results of the attack.

But a U.S. official not authorized to discuss the operation publicly said Mansur and a second male combatant accompanying him in a vehicle were probably killed.

The official said the attack was carried out by unmanned aircraft operated by U.S. Special Operations Forces. The official said the operation occurred southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, and was authorized by President Barack Obama.

The Associated Press quoted Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Rauf as saying Mansur was killed in a drone strike "in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area."

Other Taliban militants denied the reports as baseless.

File photo of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur.
File photo of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office confirmed the strike, adding that the government was investigating whether Mansur had been killed.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said Mansur's death would have a positive impact on stalled peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

He said Mansur was "the main figure preventing the Taliban joining the peace process" in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been waging an insurgency for 15 years.

Cook said Mansur had prohibited Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government.

Cook also said Mansur had been "actively involved with planning attacks" across Afghanistan.

A State Department official quoted by Reuters said both Pakistan and Afghanistan were notified of the strike, but did not disclose whether that notification was prior to it being carried out.

"The opportunity to conduct this operation to eliminate the threat that Mansur posed was a distinctive one, and we acted on it," the official said.

Members of Congress lauded the attack.

Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat-California), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Mansur's death would be a huge blow to the Taliban, but not enough to allow the United States to disengage from the conflict.

"We must remain vigilant and well-resourced in the field, and must continue to help create the conditions for a political solution," Schiff said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Republican-Arizona) said he was glad Mansur "has met his just end," but urged stepped-up coalition attacks on the Taliban.

"Our troops are in Afghanistan today for the same reason they deployed there in 2001 -- to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorists," McCain said.

Mansur was declared the leader of the Taliban in July 2015, just days after the Afghan government confirmed that Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died in the Pakistani port city of Karachi two years earlier.

But a leadership dispute immediately ensued with some Taliban commanders refusing to recognize Mansur.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law until the group was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa