KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban named an Islamic legal scholar who was one of former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s deputies to succeed him on Wednesday, after confirming Mansour’s death in a U.S. drone strike at the weekend.
Within an hour of the announcement of Haibatullah Akhundzada’s appointment, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a shuttle bus carrying court employees west of the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing up to 11 people and wounding several others, including children.
The new Taliban leader was named in a United Nations report last year as former chief of the sharia-based justice system during the Taliban’s five-year rule over Afghanistan, which ended with their ouster in 2001.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of a feared network blamed for many deadly bomb attacks in Kabul in recent years, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, will serve as deputies.
The announcement, following a meeting of the Taliban’s main shura, or leadership council, ended days of confusion during which the Taliban declined to confirm the death of Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan on Saturday.
“All the shura members have pledged allegiance to Sheikh Haibatullah in a safe place in Afghanistan,” a Taliban statement said. “All people are required to obey the new Emir-al-Momineen (commander of the faithful).”
Akhundzada, believed to be around 60 years of age and a member of the powerful Noorzai tribe, was a close aide to Omar and is from Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan and the heartland of the Taliban.
An official Taliban account on Twitter posted an undated photograph it said was of Akhundzada, informally known as Mullah Haibatullah, with a white turban and long, greying beard.
The post listed his full title as Emir-ul-Momineen Sheikh ul Quran, or “commander of the faithful, scholar of the Koran”.
The Taliban movement banned human images for breaching their strict interpretation of Islam when they governed Afghanistan.
Under their rule, women could only appear in public under a heavy veil and accompanied by a male relative, and they were denied a formal education. Public executions were staged and sports banned.
QUESTIONS OVER PEACE TALKS
Senior members of the insurgent group had been keenly aware of the need to appoint a candidate who could bring disparate factions together and repair the splits that emerged last year when Mansour was appointed.
“It was much quicker than most people expected, including myself. It shows that the Taliban are keen not to have a new conflict,” said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
According to two members of the council present when the decision was made, Akhundzada was appointed after both Haqqani and Yaqoob were ruled out, adding pressure on the group to select a leader who could unite it.
They said it was feared that Haqqani’s record as the leader of one of the most violent groups in the insurgency would bring unwelcome problems for the Taliban, while Yaqoob was considered too inexperienced, despite the prestige of his family name.
Mansour, a former deputy to Omar named as leader in 2015 after the Taliban announced their founder had died more than two years earlier, faced widespread anger that he had deceived the movement by covering up his predecessor’s death.
However, there was no sign the appointment would lead to any shift in the stance of the Taliban, which under Mansour gained more territory than at any time since being driven from power in 2001 and ruled out joining peace talks with the government.
“Prospects for the Afghan peace process remain poor,” said former CIA official and White House advisor Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution.
“The Taliban leadership including the new commander Mullah Akhundzada believe military victory is only a matter of time.”
An audio statement purporting to be from Akhundzada rejected peace talks, but the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later said the message was not authentic and did not come from the new leader.
WARNING FOR NEW LEADER
The Afghan government called on the new Taliban leader to end the war, or face dire consequences.
“Latest developments offer Taliban groups opportunity to end violence and resume peaceful life; else they will face the fate of their leadership,” President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi said in a tweet.
The United States, Pakistan and China have also been trying to get the militants to the negotiating table to end a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and security personnel and left Afghanistan seriously unstable.
News of the appointment came as a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, killing 11 people and wounding as many as 10 others, including at least six children.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the attack on staff from the judicial system was in response to the Afghan government’s decision earlier this month to execute six Taliban prisoners on death row. Other attacks would follow, he added.
“We will continue on this path,” he said in a statement.
The decision by Ghani to execute the prisoners on death row was taken as part of a tougher policy towards the Taliban following a suicide attack by the insurgent movement which killed at least 64 people in Kabul.
Additional reporting by Kay Johnson in Islamabad, James Mackenzie and Sayed Hassib in Kabul, Idrees Ali in Washington and Samihullah Paiwand in Gardez; writing by Kay Johnson; editing by Mike Collett-White
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