September 4, 2018 / 3:42 AM / 3 months ago

Taliban says founder of militant Afghan Haqqani network dies

KABUL (Reuters) - Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the militant Haqqani network, one of the most powerful and feared groups in the Afghan insurgency, has died after a long illness, the Taliban said on Tuesday.

Haqqani, who founded the network in the 1970s, gave up operational leadership of the group some years ago to his son Sirajuddin, who is now deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban, with a $5-million U.S. bounty on his head.

“Haqqani had become quite old and was suffering from different health problems,” said one Taliban source close to the Haqqani family.

The Taliban issued a statement on Haqqani’s death but did not say where or when he died but said he had been ill and bed-ridden for several years.

Defense ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish said the death was not expected to mean any major change for the Haqqani network, blamed by Afghan and U.S. security officials for some of the most devastating suicide attacks of the past decade.

“Operationally, his death will not have an impact on the group,” he said, adding that Haqqani’s role in recent years was ideological rather than practical.

Haqqani achieved prominence as a guerrilla leader in the U.S.-backed campaign against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan during the 1980s but later allied himself with the Taliban, fighting American troops after the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

Haqqani is considered to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, where it was previously unknown, and his group became notorious for complex, well-organized attacks on both Afghan and U.S. military, as well as civilian targets and high-profile kidnappings.

Last year, a bomber believed to have been sent by the network blew himself up in the heart of the government and embassy district in the Afghan capital Kabul, killing about 150 people.

With hopes for peace talks raised by an unprecedented ceasefire in June, news of the death of one of the most notorious militant commanders comes at a sensitive time for both the Taliban and Kabul’s Western-backed government.

Jalaluddin Haqqani’s death has been reported a number of times over recent years and the reports have never been disproved.

A security official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name, said Afghan intelligence services believed that Haqqani had in fact died some three years ago.

The official said the announcement of the death should be seen in connection with increased pressure from the United States on Pakistan over U.S. accusations Pakistan is not doing enough to defeat militant groups on its territory.

FILE PHOTO: Jalaluddin Haqqani (R), the Taliban's Minister for Tribal Affairs, points to a map of Afghanistan during a visit to Islamabad, Pakistan, October 19, 2001 while his son Naziruddin (L) looks on. Reuters/File Photo

U.S. and Afghan officials have long said the group was based in Pakistan’s border region of North Waziristan, was for years close to al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and operated with the support of Pakistani intelligence services.

Pakistan has rejected that accusation and has pointed to the network’s early links to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as it grew in strength during the anti-Soviet Mujahideen war of the 1980s.

No comment was immediately available from the Pakistan.

Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez

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