ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Competing claims from Taliban spokesmen about the insurgent group’s role - or lack of one - in the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani may have exposed divisions in the movement over the high-profile killing.
Rabbani was probably the most senior person to be killed in the decade-long war and, as head of the High Peace Council, had been charged with trying to negotiate with the Taliban.
A Taliban spokesman known to Reuters confirmed three times to a reporter in Pakistan that the insurgent group had carried out the assassination.
However, the group also posted an online denial that it had claimed responsibility, explicitly rejecting Reuters reports.
Security analysts in Kabul said the killing of someone as senior and well protected as Rabbani would be extremely difficult without the resources and credibility of a large Taliban-linked insurgent group.
They also say there is a precedent for the group to issue or deny claims of responsibility for attacks in Afghanistan based on political motives rather than their actual role.
“Claiming or denying or condemning an action is part of the political game, and in some senses it is separate from whether the Taliban actually did or not,” said Kate Clark from the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“When Taliban operations do cause a lot of political harm, they have denied them in the past.”
She cited the 2008 killing of labourers going to Iran, when the Taliban said the killers were Afghan National Army soldiers in plain clothes, but Clark said the commander who ordered the killings was called back to Quetta and stripped of his command.
Shortly after Tuesday’s killing, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a reporter in Pakistan by telephone that the Taliban had sent a suicide bomber to target Rabbani.
The spokesman confirmed the insurgent group’s role later the same evening and on Wednesday. The telephone number was one he had used previously and his voice was familiar to the reporter.
A senior Taliban commander operating inside Afghanistan also confirmed that claim.
The third time he spoke to Reuters, Mujahid said the names of those responsible that he had at first given were wrong because he had lost contact with the mission sent to target Rabbani.
The Taliban leadership was discussing whether they should provide names of the assassins to the media, he said, hinting at disunity.
“It could create some problems for some people in our movement,” he said of releasing the names.
But a message on the Taliban Twitter account @Abalkhi on Wednesday denied that Mujahid had spoken to Reuters and, in an online and emailed statement, the group also accused Reuters of publishing “baseless news”.
Rabbani’s murder by a man who had ostensibly come to talk about peace -- and appears to have detonated his explosives while exchanging greetings -- may be seen by some as extreme treachery, even in a bitter, no-holds-barred war.
His loss is also a severe blow to hopes of a political solution to the violence, and has already stirred up ethnic tensions and sharpened divisions in Afghan society that in the past splintered into civil war.
Some of his disciples have already sworn revenge.
“Our enemies must know, with the strength of our Mujahideen and soldiers of our martyred leader, we will take revenge,” said Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of northern Balkh province. “We won’t let the blood thirsty predators escape without revenge.”
The Taliban may be considering how their largely Pashtun supporters might be affected by a wave of anger surging through a Tajik community angered by the killing of their most authoritative leader, analysts said.
“They certainly take a moment to assess what the impact of taking responsibility is,” said one security expert in Kabul, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the situation. “I think they always have that debate.”
Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by John Chalmers