A bomb tore through a mosque frequented by the Taliban leader in a possible attempt to assassinate the militant chief just as his movement is due to sign a peace deal with America.
Relatives of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada died in the blast near the Pakistani city of Quetta when a bomb exploded under the imam’s chair.
Taliban sources said Mullah Haibatullah’s younger brother, Mullah Hamdullah, and his father, Mullah Mohammad Khan, died while his son, Ahmadullah was wounded.
Mullah Haibatullah was said to have regularly attended the mosque in Kuchlak in the past and there were unconfirmed reports he had been expected to lead Friday prayers.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which killed at least five, but Graeme Smith, a consultant with International Crisis Group said it was “a fair guess that somebody wanted to disrupt the nascent peace process”.
A Pakistani official in Quetta told the New York Times that the Taliban chief had been expected at the mosque, but when he did not arrive, his brother led prayers instead.
Video of the aftermath of the bombing showed bloodsoaked wounded being carried out of the mosque on blankets. Clothes and wreckage could be seen near the iman’s chair.
“It was a timed device planted under the wooden chair of the prayer leader,” Abdul Razzaq Cheema, chief of Quetta police, told Reuters.
Quetta has long been a refuge for senior Taliban, and was said to hold the insurgents’ ruling council after their emirate was toppled from power in the wake of the 9/11 attack. Kuchlak has hosted Afghan refugees for decades and its madrassahs have been a rich recruiting ground for the Taliban seeking young fighters to wage war inside Afghanistan.
Islamic State group has in the past targeted Taliban members in Quetta, as part of their battle over territory in Afghanistan. But the timing of the attack raised speculation the bombing was linked to ongoing peace negotiations.
Taliban envoys are said to be close to securing a deal with American which would end the 18-year-long US military entanglement in Afghanistan. The deal would see a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for militant guarantees the country will not be used as a launchpad for terror groups such as al Qaeda. The Taliban will also agree to talk to Ashraf Ghani’s government about a wider political settlement. America and the Taliban spent days trying to finalise the agreement earlier this month, with sources saying only technical details remained to be signed off.
While the deal is the most significant attempt yet to find a negotiated end what has become the world’s deadliest conflict, it is also viewed with suspicion on several sides.
Hardline Taliban commanders believe there should be no settlement short of a complete defeat of the Kabul government and its backers. Some Afghans believe their government is being sold out to the Taliban and the deal is only a fig leaf to cover a US withdrawal.
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