New Taliban leader urges unity in ranks in first audio message

New Taliban leader urges unity in ranks in first audio message
Men offer funeral prayers for the late Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar at Jamia Masjid Khyber in Peshawar, Pakistan July 31, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

KABUL - New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour called for unity in the movement Saturday in his first audio message since becoming head of the group that faces deepening splits following the death of longtime chief Mullah Omar.

Barely a few hours after Mansour's appointment was announced Friday, powerful rivals within the fractious Taliban questioned the selection process, saying it was rushed and even biased.

Mansour's comments are apparently aimed at fending off the emerging risk of the group splintering into factions at a time when there is growing discord over the direction of peace talks with the Afghan government.

"We should all work to preserve unity. Division in our ranks will only please our enemies, and cause further problems for us," Mansour said in the audio recording posted on the Taliban website.

In the 33-minute message, Mansour also implored Taliban cadres to continue waging their 14-year insurgency and be wary of foreign propaganda to sow discord within the group.

"Our goal and slogan is to implement sharia and an Islamic system, and our jihad will continue until this is done," he said in the message.

News of Mansour's appointment came a day after the Taliban confirmed the death of their 20-year leader Mullah Omar, and as the Afghan government tries to jumpstart talks aimed at ending the 14-year insurgency.

Mansour is seen as a pragmatist and a proponent of peace talks, raising hopes that the power transition could pave the way for an end to Afghanistan's long, bloody war.

But though Mansour obliquely referenced the talks in his audio message, it was not clear if he supported them.

The Taliban also announced his deputies - Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Taliban-allied Haqqani network and has a US$10 million (S$13.7 million) US bounty on his head, and Haibatullah Akhundzada, former head of the Taliban courts.

A Taliban official said that after the group's ruling council had chosen a successor for Omar, the decision was supposed to be ratified by a college of religious clerics.

Omar's son Mullah Yakoub was favoured to take over by some commanders, sources said, but at 26 was considered too young and inexperienced for such a key role.

Mansour, who was named the new Amir-ul-Momineen - "commander of the faithful" - faced staunch internal resistance from some members of the Taliban's ruling council, the Quetta Shura, who accuse Pakistan of hijacking the movement.

He has powerful rivals within the Taliban who are strongly opposed to peace talks with the Afghan government, with some insurgents also unhappy at the thought he may have deceived them for over a year about Omar's death.

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