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Scholar named new Afghan Taliban leader

THE Afghan Taliban confirmed yesterday that their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a United States drone strike last week and that they have appointed a successor — a scholar known for extremist views who is unlikely to back a peace process with Kabul.

The announcement came as a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying court employees in the Afghan capital, killing at least 11 people, an official said. The Taliban promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a statement sent to the media, the Taliban said their new leader is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of Mansour’s two deputies. The insurgent group said he was chosen at a meeting of Taliban leaders, which is believed to have taken place in Pakistan, but offered no other details.

Mansour was killed in Pakistan last Saturday when his vehicle was struck by a US drone plane, an attack believed to be the first time a Taliban leader was killed in such a way inside Pakistani territory.

Pakistani authorities have been accused both by Kabul and the West of giving shelter and support to some Taliban leaders — a claim Islamabad denies. The insurgents have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since 2001, when their own Islamist regime was overthrown by the US invasion.

The US and the Afghan government have said that Mansour had been an obstacle to a peace process, which ground to a halt when he refused to participate in talks with the government earlier this year. Instead, he intensified the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.

Mansour had officially led the Taliban since last summer, when the death of the movement’s founder, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar became public. But he is believed to have run the movement in Mullah Omar’s name for more than two years. The revelation of Mullah Omar’s death and Mansour’s deception led to widespread mistrust, with some senior Taliban leaders leaving the group to set up their own factions.

Senior Taliban figures have said Mansour’s death could strengthen and unify the movement, as he was in some ways a divisive figure. The identity of his successor was expected to be an indication of the direction the insurgency would take, either toward peace or war.

Akhundzada is a religious scholar who served as the Taliban’s chief justice before his appointment as a deputy to Mansour. He is known for issuing public statements justifying the existence of the extremist Taliban, their war against the government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. His views are regarded as hawkish, and he could be expected to continue in the aggressive footsteps of Mansour, at least in the early days of his leadership.

A member of the Noorzai tribe, he is aged around 50 years, and comes from a line of religious scholars. He leads a string of madrassas, or religious schools, across Pakistan’s southwest Baluchistan province.