| KANDAHAR, Afghanistan
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's top operational commander in southern Afghanistan, was killed during a clash with Western and Afghan forces in Helmand province, officials said on Sunday.
The death of Dadullah represents the biggest setback to the Taliban command since the insurgency began, after its Islamic militia government was toppled by U.S. backed forces in 2001.
"He was killed last night and right now I have his body before me," Assadullah Khalid, governor of neighboring Kandahar province, told Reuters.
An Interior Ministry statement said Dadullah was killed in fighting with security forces in Helmand's Girishk district on Saturday night. NATO issued a statement confirming the feared Taliban commander had been eliminated in a U.S.-led operation.
"Mullah Dadullah Lang left his sanctuary into Southern Afghanistan where he was killed in a US-led coalition operation supported by ISAF," the statement issued by NATO, which leads the International Security Assistance Force, said.
The one-legged Dadullah has been reported to have been captured or killed several times in the past, but this time the authorities appeared sure he was dead.
A Reuters reporter who had seen Dadullah in the past recognized the body brought to Kandahar.
The bearded face was pale and splattered with blood, and he appeared to have suffered a head wound.
Placed on a stretcher, the corpse was partially covered with a purple cloth. The left leg was missing.
A senior Pakistani security official, who requested anonymity, gave a different version, saying Dadullah was killed on Friday night in an airstrike. But an Afghan intelligence official said that was incorrect, and Dadullah died from wounds rather than being blown to pieces by a bomb or missile strike.
"His body is intact," the Afghan official said.
Dadullah was a member of Taliban's 10 member leadership council and close to the movement's fugitive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"It's the biggest setback to the Taliban since they started resistance in 2001," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar based journalist and expert on tribal affairs in the Pashtun lands straddling the Pakistan-Afghan border where the Taliban operate.
"They can take revenge for the killing. They can become more brutal. There may be more reprisal attacks. But it is clear that for now, at least, that there is no one who can replace him," Yusufzai said.
"He was an inspirational and daring commander. I don't see any person of his standing in the Taliban heirachy."
Apart from leading most Taliban attacks in the south, Dadullah's savagery earned him the sobriquet of Afghanistan's Al Zarqawi, after the al Qaeda leader in Iraq who was killed last year.
Dadullah was believed to be behind a campaign of suicide bombings and a series of kidnappings of foreigners and Afghans and beheadings of hostages or collaborators.
"His claim to fame was suicide bombings," a senior Pakistani security official said, adding that Dadullah had been a frequent visitor to Waziristan, a Pakistan tribal region regarded as a hotbed of support for the Taliban.
In December, U.S.-led forces killed another top Taliban official, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Osmani, in an air attack in the south of the country after a tip-off by Pakistan.
"They have now knocked out two senior military commanders. This is a very serious blow to the Taliban," the Pakistani officer said.