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23 Dec 06,, 20:45
Top Taliban Leader Killed by U.S. Airstrike
Osmani Considered Close Associate of bin Laden
By JASON STRAZIUSO, AP


KABUL, Afghanistan (Dec. 23) - A U.S. airstrike near the Pakistan border killed the Taliban's southern military commander, a U.S. military spokesman said Saturday, calling him the highest-ranking Taliban ever slain by American forces.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani's vehicle was hit by a U.S. airstrike Tuesday as he traveled in a deserted area in the southern province of Helmand, the spokesman said. Two associates also were killed.

U.S. and Afghan officials said the strike was a major victory. Ahmed Rashid, a leading author on Islamic militancy, 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, Rashid said.

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

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," 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."

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.

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 airstrike 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. Collins said officials waited four days to announce the news in part so that they could be sure the Taliban commander was dead.

Identifying remains was difficult, Collins said, because of the damage inflicted by the airstrike. "The vehicle was completely destroyed, there was nothing to recognize," he said.

Osmani's absence will be felt by the Taliban: He was part of a group of "coequals" at the tier of leadership just under Omar, Collins said, and was also in charge of the Taliban's finances.

"There's no doubt that it will have an immediate impact on their ability to conduct attacks," the spokesman said.

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

As Kandahar corps commander during the Taliban regime, Osmani would have been responsible for security around Omar. He supported bin Laden among the Taliban and had received a lot of money from Arab sources to build his military force, Rashid said.

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

In June, a man claiming to be Osmani - his face was concealed by a black turban - gave an interview to a Pakistani television network. He told the network that both Omar and bin Laden were alive and well, and claimed to be receiving instructions from Omar.

Associated Press reporter Matthew Pennington in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.


12/23/2006 14:26:26