KABUL NATO-led forces said on Saturday that they had captured the senior commander for the Haqqani network in Afghanistan, Haji Mali Khan, during an operation in eastern Paktia province earlier in the week.
Khan is "the uncle of Siraj and Badruddin Haqqani ... one of the highest ranking members of the Haqqani network and a revered elder of the Haqqani clan," the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.
Siraj, or Sirajuddin, Haqqani and his brother, Badruddin, are sons of veteran Afghan militant commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.
NATO said Khan had managed bases and operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and moved forces across the border for attacks, as well as transferring funds and sourcing supplies. The force called him "the senior Haqqani commander in Afghanistan."
Khan was captured on Tuesday in Jani Khel district of Paktia province along with his deputy and bodyguard, in an operation by Afghan and foreign forces, NATO said.
He was heavily armed but "submitted ... without incident or resistance," the force said. It did not detail how they had identified Khan.
The Taliban, to whom the Haqqani network has pledged allegiance, denied that Khan had been captured.
"I have just spoken with Haji Mali Khan, he is fine and is somewhere else and hasn't been detained," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters. "This is a baseless news and it has been released in order to weaken Mujahideen's morale," he said.
Members of the Haqqani network declined to comment on the ISAF statement, but confirmed to Reuters that Khan is Sirajuddin Haqqani's maternal uncle.
They said he was not a senior commander but his relatives are involved in the Haqqanis' fight against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
A Pakistani intelligence official, however, said Khan was closely involved in the affairs of the Haqqanis, and managed the group's links with other militant organizations in Pakistan's northwestern Pashtun tribal areas.
"This is a blow for the Haqqanis," the Pakistani official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
NATO said this year they had arrested 1,300 suspected Haqqani insurgents and 300 insurgent leaders in 500 operations that aimed to disrupt the network. About 20 "network facilitators" were killed, the force added.
Khan had also established a militant camp in Paktia province in the past year, and reported directly to Sirajuddin Haqqani, NATO said.
Sirajuddin is now believed to be in charge of day-to-day affairs of the Haqqani network because his father has health problems.
Before fighting in Afghanistan, NATO said Khan had served as a Haqqani network envoy to Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was killed in 2009.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Afghanistan; Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad, Saud Mehsud and Hafiz Wazir in Pakistan; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Qasim Nauman; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Robert Birsel)