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U.S. kills top Taliban leader

Terry Friel
Reuters
Saturday, December 23, 2006

U.S. forces said on Saturday they had killed the Taliban's military chief in southern Afghanistan, who had close links to Osama bin Laden and was heir to the rebel leadership.

Akhtar Mohammad Osmani was the most senior leader killed yet and was targeted in a region where the insurgency is at its bloodiest, a military spokesman said. The Taliban denied he was dead.

Osmani and two other guerillas were killed in an air strike on their car on an isolated desert road on Tuesday, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition force, Colonel Tom Collins, said in Kabul.

"Mullah Osmani is the highest ranking Taliban leader that we've ever killed," he said. "His death is very significant and will hit the Taliban's operations."

The Taliban said Osmani, anointed by the group's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, as his heir in 2001, was alive.

"We strongly deny this. He is not present in the area where American forces are claiming to have killed him," commander Mullah Hayat Khan told Reuters by telephone.

"The American and NATO forces from time to time make such false claims. It's just propaganda against the Taliban."

Osmani could be the most senior Islamist militant killed since Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leading al Qaeda in Iraq, died in a U.S. air strike in June.

He controls the Taliban's fighting machine in six provinces in its southern heartland, including Helmand and Kandahar where foreign troops, mainly British and Canadian, have suffered their worst casualties this year.

"WE'RE SURE" - U.S.

Osmani was also close to bin Laden and helped coordinate relations with al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Collins said Osmani's car was destroyed in the attack in Helmand and the U.S. coalition had taken four days to check intelligence and other sources to confirm his identity.

"We're sure that we killed Osmani," he said. "It's a big loss for the Taliban. But the Taliban is also fairly adaptive. There is no doubt that they will put somebody else in that position and we will go after that person too," he said.

Neither the U.S. or Taliban comments could be independently verified. Another Taliban spokesman said three men were killed in Tuesday's attack, but not Osmani.

This has been the bloodiest year since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban's hardline government in 2001. More than 4,000 people have died and the worst fighting has been in the provinces under Osmani's command.

The Taliban has been strengthened by profits from a record opium crop in the world's biggest supplier, and Helmand is the center of the trade, and safe havens in Pakistan.

In an interview with Pakistani television in June 2005, Osmani gave one of the first reports that bin Laden was safe and healthy and that Mullah Omar remained in control of the Taliban.

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