The battle against the Taliban turned high-tech in Afghanistan on Wednesday with insurgents claiming their cell phones and website were hacked to spread false reports about the death of their leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Taliban spokesmen quickly denied that their one-eyed, reclusive leader had died. Later, the Taliban's cultural affairs commission issued a lengthy retort, alleging that "the enemy, led by American spies," was behind the false reports. The response said the Taliban leader was very much alive and "on duty."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the insurgents' official website, spokesmen's email accounts and cell phones were all hacked.
"They sent emails from these addresses from the spokesmen to a number of foreign and Afghan media," the commission said. "At the same time, they hacked the cell phones of the spokesmen and sent text messages" announcing the death of Mullah Omar.
The U.S.-led coalition in Kabul had no comment.
Mullah Omar has led the decade-long insurgency against the U.S.-led military coalition and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. He ruled most of Afghanistan as leader of its Taliban government before the United States and its allies toppled the regime in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan because Mullah Omar was sheltering Osama bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaida who was killed in a recent raid in Pakistan.
The Taliban said that the "shameful and unusual act of the enemy" reflects that foreign forces have failed in their mission in Afghanistan. Afghan and coalition officials say that it's the Taliban who have been weakened, can't stand and fight against the tens of thousands of foreign troops and can only launch one-off attacks and bombings, which often kill and wound civilians.
Violence has spiked recently as Afghan security forces have started to take charge of security in seven areas _ a process that is to continue until they are in the lead across the nation by 2014, when foreign combat troops will be gone or in supportive roles.
Earlier this week, coalition forces turned over control of Bamiyan province, a relatively peaceful area in central Afghanistan, and Mehterlam, the capital of Laghman province in the east. On Wednesday, coalition forces transferred responsibility in Lashkar Gah, the provincial province of Helmand in the south. Later this week, transition is to begin in Herat, the provincial capital of Herat province in the west; Panjshir province, north of Kabul; and Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province in the north. All of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district is already in the hands of Afghan forces.
Insurgents have been targeting the transition areas to convince the Afghan people that they cannot trust Afghan security forces to protect them.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in Mazar-i-Sharif, killing four civilians, including a child, said Sher Jan Durani, a spokesman for the provincial police chief. More than 10 others were injured in the bombing, which occurred in the south end of the provincial capital of Balkh province.
Also Wednesday, a gunbattle killed three Afghan police officers, including a district police chief, and two insurgents in the southern city of Kandahar. Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said police came under fire overnight when they surrounded a home where insurgents were believed to be hiding.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, Patrick Quinn and Amir Shah in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.