Taliban denies capture of top military commander
MOSCOW, February 16 (RIA Novosti) - The Taliban dismissed on Tuesday reports that its top military commander had been captured in southern Pakistan.
U.S. officials said in an earlier statement that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who ranks second in influence only to the Taliban's founder Mullah Muhammad Omar, had been captured last week in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, in a joint operation by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence forces.
However, a spokesman for the Taliban denied the reports, saying Mullah Baradar was still free.
"He has not been captured. They want to spread this rumor just to divert the attention of people from their defeats in Marjah," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Reuters news agency, referring to an ongoing major offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province against the Taliban by NATO and Afghan forces.
"He is safe and free and he is in Afghanistan," the New York Times quoted Zabihullah Mujahid as saying.
According to Interpol, Mullah Baradar, born 1968, had previously served as deputy minister of defense for the Taliban regime.
The New York Times said that the role of the Pakistani spy agency in the operation may signal "a new level of cooperation" from Pakistan's senior leaders, who have been "ambivalent" about U.S.-NATO efforts to crush the radical Islamic Taliban movement.
In November 2008, an Afghan news agency revealed that the Taliban's spiritual leader Mullah Omar was hiding out in Pakistan under the protection of Pakistani spy agencies.
Violence surged in the war-ravaged Central Asian state in 2009, with the Taliban staging regular attacks on provincial government officials, police and civilians and planting roadside devices as part of its fight to regain control of the country. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, before being toppled by U.S.-led forces.
In early December, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in the first part of 2010. However, with mounting deaths among troops, the Western allies hope to start a gradual withdrawal as early as in 2011, transferring security tasks to the Afghan army and police.
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