The US military targeted Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, with an airstrike on Saturday, the Pentagon said in a statement, but it's unclear whether Mansour was killed.
"We are still assessing the results of the strike and will provide more information as it becomes available," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
Cook said the strike occurred in a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Mansour was named leader of the Taliban last August after the Afghan government announced the death of the group's previous commander, Mullah Omar. Omar's death was kept secret by the Taliban for up to two years, and the succession process was turbulent. The Taliban released a video that showed members pledging allegiance to Mansour, but there was also evidence of an internal schism. Some members of Mullah Omar's family, including his son Mohammad Yacoub, have vied for leadership of the group.
"Since the death of Mullah Omar and Mansur's assumption of leadership, the Taliban have conducted many attacks that have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces as well as numerous US and Coalition personnel," Cook said.
Unconfirmed reports circulating on Afghan social media said that Mansour was killed in the strike. Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Salih said in a post on Facebook that Mansour was dead.
"Taliban's leader Mullah Mansour selected by ISI has been killed," Salih wrote, referring to Pakistan's intelligence agency. "I hope the Afghan government will use this opportunity in a best strategic method which will lead the country toward peace and stability. I will use this opportunity to thank our international partners, in particular the Americans."
A Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on the reports of Mansour's death.
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Earlier this year, VICE News spoke with Mullah Manan Niazi, the deputy leader of a Taliban splinter group that opposes Mansour. He claimed that Mansour's supporters killed Mullah Omar, saying the former Taliban leader was "killed in suspicious way," and suggested that Mansour's dealings with foreign governments had divided the Taliban.
"They have made many deals with infidels such as Russia, China, and with Americans in Qatar. For all these deals they made, they also hide the news of Mullah Omar's death or killing. We have finished our ties with them," he said. "They are trying to make all members of the Islamic movement as slaves and puppets of the neighbors."
He added that "the Afghan government and Mansour are both the puppets of the foreigners," and suggested that Pakistan's government wielded influence over Mansour's Taliban faction.
Cook said that as the leader of the Taliban, Mansour has been "actively involved with planning attacks" across Afghanistan. He also said Mansour "has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict."
In March, the Taliban issued a statement attributed to Mansour which said the group would not participate in peace talks until all foreign troops leave the country, among other conditions.
Further fracturing the Taliban, the Islamic State, a rival jihadist group, has increased its presence and influence in Afghanistan. A number of Taliban commanders have defected and sworn allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since he claimed in January that Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, was part of the group's "Khorasan province."
The Taliban, which has been fighting to topple the US-backed government in Kabul since the 2001 invasion, has regained significant territory in recent weeks in the southern Helmand province, and there has also been heavy fighting in several other Afghan provinces, including in Kunduz in the north, Kunar in the east, and Uruzgan and Ghazni in the center.
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