Taliban’s elusive leader urges more suicide raids

By Saeed Ali Achakzai, Reuters
The fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has urged his followers to step up suicide attacks on foreign and Afghan troops and remain united, according to a Taliban commander.

Violence has surged in Afghanistan in recent weeks after a winter lull, following last year’s bloodiest period since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.

Taliban commander Mullah Hayatullah Khan told Reuters late on Friday by satellite phone from an undisclosed location that Omar had contacted senior and regional commanders and congratulated them for carrying out “successful” attacks in recent weeks.

He would not give details as to how and when Mullah Omar contacted the commanders.

“Taliban mujahideen (holy warriors), through unity in their ranks, should continue and increase their guerrilla and suicide attacks on occupation forces and the infidels will soon run away,” Khan quoted Omar as saying.

“Mullah Omar has ordered us to liberate our country, (and) we should step up attacks on occupation forces and their puppet Afghans,” he said.

The Taliban refer to Western-backed President Hamid Karzai and his associates as puppets.

Mullah Omar, who has a $10 million U.S. government bounty on his head, told his fighters to try not to harm innocent civilians during their offensives, Khan said.

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the past year.

The head of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan said on Thursday he expected to see more suicide attacks and roadside bombings from the Taliban but saw it as a sign of desperation because they lacked military muscle.

WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN

Omar’s whereabouts are not known. Afghanistan’s government insists he lives and operates in Pakistan, the former key supporter of the Taliban until the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Islamabad denies this and the Taliban say he lives in Afghanistan and coordinates attacks from there.

The Taliban and their Islamic allies such as the al Qaeda network, are largely active in southern and eastern areas close to the border with Pakistan. The Taliban have been copying suicide attacks and kidnapping tactics from Iraqi militants.

On Friday they threatened to kill two French aid workers captured early this month if Taliban demands were not met in one week’s time.

The Islamic group has told France to withdraw its 1,100 strong force from Afghanistan and wants the release of Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vowed his government will do all it can to free the two French nationals, a state newspaper said on Saturday.

But he has ruled out any ransom deal for Afghan or foreign hostages after he was criticized for releasing five Taliban prisoners last month in return for the release of an Italian journalist.

Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed after two weeks, but his Afghan driver and translator were beheaded.

The Taliban are also holding five Afghan health workers and have threatened to kill one soon unless the government starts negotiations for their release.

Separately on Saturday, small blasts occurred in two cities of northern Afghanistan, witnesses said.

The explosions, one outside a government building and one outside a shop, caused slight damage but no injuries.

In Kabul, a passer-by sustained minor wounds in an apparently random rocket attack near a ministry on the city outskirts

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