- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. air strike near the Pakistan border killed the Taliban’s southern military commander, an associate of Osama bin Laden and heir to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, U.S. and Afghan officials said yesterday.

Akhtar Mohammed Osmani’s vehicle was hit by a U.S. air strike Tuesday as he traveled in a deserted area in the southern province of Helmand, the spokesman said. Two of his associates also were killed.

U.S. and Afghan officials said the strike was a major victory.

Ahmed Rashid, a leading author on the Taliban, said Osmani’s death could disrupt planning for a Taliban offensive early next year, designed to extend the recent surge of violence across Afghanistan.

Osmani played an instrumental role in some of the Taliban’s most notorious excesses — including the demolition of the ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan and the trial of Christian aid workers in 2001, Mr. Rashid said.

He also was one of three top associates of Mullah Omar, and among the first supporters of bin Laden within the militant Islamic militia’s top ranks, Mr. Rashid said.

A Taliban spokesman denied that Osmani was dead, but a provincial police chief and Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry confirmed the killing. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary called it “a big achievement.”

A U.S. spokesman said the death was confirmed through multiple sources.

As the Taliban’s chief military commander in southern Afghanistan, Osmani played a “central role in facilitating terrorist operations” including roadside bombings, suicide attacks and ambushes against Afghan and international forces, said Col. Tom Collins, the U.S. military spokesman.

“Mullah Osmani is the highest-ranking Taliban leader we’ve ever killed,” Col. Collins said. “He was the chief of the Taliban’s military operations, so his death is very significant and will hurt the Taliban’s operations.”

Mr. Rashid agreed the death was a “major blow” to the militia.

“It’s the first casualty among the top Taliban leadership in the past five years, which makes the strike very significant,” he said.

Col. Collins said Osmani had been “utilizing both sides” of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and that the U.S. military had been tracking him “for a while.”

“When the time was right, and we thought we had a good chance of hitting him without causing any harm to civilians, we struck,” he said.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks this year, especially in Afghanistan’s south, and waged fierce battles with Western and Afghan government forces.

About 4,000 people have died in the violence, raising fears for the country’s future stability after a quarter-century of war.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, denied that Osmani had been killed. He said the air strike killed a group commander and three other Taliban fighters.

“I confirm that Osmani is alive and is in Afghanistan,” Ahmadi told the Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

But other sources said there was little doubt. Col. Collins said officials waited four days to announce the news in part so they could be sure the Taliban commander was dead.

Identifying remains was difficult, Col. Collins said, because of the damage inflicted by the air strike. “The vehicle was completely destroyed. There was nothing to recognize,” he said.

Osmani was part of a group of “coequals” at the tier of leadership just under Mullah Omar, Col. Collins said, and was also in charge of the Taliban’s finances.

Although the U.S. said Osmani was an associate of bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Col. Collins said he did not know the last time Osmani had contact with any of the three.

The whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader who has a $10 million reward on his head, remain a mystery.

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