Taliban investigate US claim of murder of al-Qaeda leader

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By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The Taliban are investigating a US “claim” that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, a Taliban official said Thursday, indicating that the group’s leaders were unaware of his presence there.

The United States killed Zawahiri on Sunday with a missile fired by a drone as he stood on a balcony of his hideout in Kabul, US officials said, in the biggest blow to militants since Osama bin Laden was shot dead more than a decade ago.

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“The government and leadership were not aware of what is being claimed, nor of any trace,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s designated representative to the United Nations, who is based in Doha, told reporters.

“The veracity of the claim is now being investigated,” he said, adding that the results of the investigation would be shared publicly.

Taliban leaders have kept quiet about Sunday’s drone strike and have not confirmed Zawahiri’s presence or death in Kabul.

Top Taliban leaders have had lengthy discussions about how to respond to the US drone strike, three sources in the group said.

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The Taliban’s response could have significant repercussions as the group seeks international legitimacy and accesses billions of dollars in frozen funds following their defeat of a US-backed government a year ago.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, was closely involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and was one of the world’s most wanted men.

His death in Kabul raises questions about whether he received shelter from the Taliban, who had assured the United States as part of a 2020 agreement on the withdrawal of US-led troops that they would not host other militant groups.

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Shaheen said the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan – the name the Taliban use for the country and their government – is committed to the agreement, signed in the Qatari capital Doha.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had “grossly violated” the agreement by housing and providing shelter to Zawahiri.

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; editing by Robert Birsel)

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