By Rob Taylor
KABUL (Reuters) - Hackers have for the third time in less than a year crippled the main website of the Afghan Taliban, with a Taliban spokesman on Friday blaming Western intelligence agencies amid an intensifying cyber war with the insurgents.
The unidentified hackers broke into the Taliban's El Emara website twice on Thursday, replacing usual insurgent victory messages with images of executions and support for the Afghan government and security forces in English, Arabic and Pashto.
Some of the photographs showed women being shot in the head or hanged by former Taliban executioners, while another showed two women in head-to-toe burkas being beaten.
"Violence is wrong in all its forms, especially the encouragement by the Taliban of cowardly betrayal and the senseless murder of innocent civilians," a screenshot from Afghan Pajhwok News showed the message as saying in English.
"The Afghan Security Forces are accountable to Allah and the Afghan people, and seek to restore peace as the foreigners leave the land," it said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters that the website was hacked around 12:30 am on Thursday and fixed in three hours, before being breached again at midday and put out of commission again. It was still being repaired on Friday
"It was hacked again by enemies and foreign intelligence services," Zabihullah said. "The enemy tries to push its propaganda. The enemy is worried by what gets published in our webpage. It's confusing for them, so they try to react."
A NATO spokesman declined comment on the claim.
The Taliban have in recent months waged an intensifying information war with NATO forces in the country, distributing anti-government messages on mobile phone networks and using Twitter to claim largely improbable successes as most foreign combat troops look to leave the country by 2014.
A day rarely passes without a Taliban spokesman using Twitter to claim the destruction of numerous NATO armored vehicles and the deaths of scores of Western or Afghan security forces, with NATO quickly countering in its own Twitter feeds.
The Taliban also employ a sophisticated network of spokesmen to distribute messages and even have their own mobile radio broadcast service, which frequently moves location to avoid the threat of retaliatory airstrikes by NATO warplanes.
Unknown hackers brought down the main Taliban website earlier this month, when El Emara's English language page was replaced temporarily with images of Taliban atrocities and photographs of roadside bombs, according to the Long War Journal website, which tracks progress in the war, now dragging into its eleventh year.
Another cyber attack took place on June 20 last year, when false messages were distributed about the death of the Taliban's one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, from both the website and the phones of Taliban spokesman.
Thursday's hacking attack came as a man wearing an Afghan security forces uniform shot and killed a U.S. soldier in the country's south, in the latest incident of so-called green-on-blue killings by local police and soldiers of Western mentors.
Three soldiers were killed by an improvised bomb in the east, where NATO recently launched one of the last large offensives of the war to try to clear insurgent strongholds near the Pakistan border and around Kabul.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Nick Macfie)