By Jibran Ahmad
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban said on Wednesday that a major dispute undermining the movement has been resolved, after relatives of the militant group's late leader, Mullah Omar, pledged support for his appointed successor Mullah Mansour.
As part of the deal, Mansour's faction say they will protect Omar's family from any retaliation by Mansour's rivals.
Many important Taliban figures still oppose Mansour.
Yet the deal reinforces his leadership, making it more likely that the Taliban can avoid rupturing at a time when Islamic State is seeking to expand its influence in the region, and also raising hopes that stalled peace talks with the Afghan government may resume.
Both Mansour and his opponents had sought the backing of Omar's family in order to strengthen their claims to the leadership. Omar's family will be protected from any threats, a Taliban commander close to Mansour said.
Mansour will also reach out to senior Afghan Taliban who opposed him or had doubts over his appointment, the Taliban member added. Many important Taliban figures, including those in the political office in Qatar, have yet to publicly endorse him.
Omar's relatives could not be contacted directly, but a close aide to Omar's son confirmed an agreement had been celebrated at a secret ceremony after Mansour accepted eight demands.
The conditions included restructuring the leadership council - its head will be chosen from Omar's family - and ruling by consensus.
"Mullah Mansour accepted all these demands," the aide said, asking not to be named.
The Taliban's official spokesman, representing Mansour, confirmed that the changes would be implemented.
"Mullah Mansour and his associates promised them that only the Shura (leadership council) would have the power to make decisions, rather than individuals," the spokesman said.
"We intend to protect and keep this movement united," the Taliban said in a statement published on its website, which is controlled by Mullah Mansour's supporters.
It quoted Omar's younger brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, and the founder's son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, as declaring their intention to support Mansour.
"Both of them said the Islamic Emirate is their collective home where all of them would like to work together," the statement added.
LINKS WITH PAKISTAN
This July, Afghan intelligence leaked the news of Omar's death, more than two years after his demise, derailing a fledging peace process with Kabul and raising the spectre of a split within the group that is fighting to topple the Afghan government and restore hardline Islamist rule.
The Taliban said concealing the leader's death had been necessary to preserve unity at a time when NATO forces were preparing for the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Omar's longtime deputy Mansour was swiftly appointed his successor.
Many Taliban members were unhappy with Mansour's appointment, because he had concealed news of Omar's death and orchestrated his own rapid promotion. They also worried that he was too beholden to Pakistan.
Afghanistan frequently accuses Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban by providing safe havens and other aid, accusations the Pakistanis deny.
In the end, the Afghan Taliban had little choice but to unite around the leader supported by Pakistan, said Saifullah Mahsud of Islamabad-based think-thank FATA Research Center.
"I'm sure there was a lot of pressure from the Pakistani side for them to accept (Mansour)," he said. "The Taliban don't have much of a choice. They have to rely on their Pakistani friends to take this movement forward."
Should Mansour be able to consolidate his position, he might restart stalled peace talks with the Afghan government, Mahsud said. The talks began in July but stalled after news of Omar's death leaked.
The talks are backed by Pakistan. But many Afghan Taliban are suspicious of the process and fear Pakistan wants to exploit their insurgency to increase its own regional influence.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Mike Collett-White)