Afghanistan's main intelligence agency said Wednesday that the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has been dead for more than two years.
The one-eyed, secretive head of the Taliban hosted Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and then waged a decade-long insurgency against U.S. troops after the 2001 invasion that ended Taliban rule.
He has not been seen in public since fleeing the invasion over the border into Pakistan.
Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, said Mullah Omar died in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi in April 2013.
"We confirm officially that he is dead," he told The Associated Press.
It was not immediately clear why his death was only being announced now. The Taliban could not immediately be reached for comment. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said it had no information about the announcement.
A former Taliban minister who was once close to Mullah Omar said he had died of tuberculosis and was "buried somewhere near the border on the Afghan side." He spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his standing with the Taliban, who do not want individual members to speak to the media.
A Pakistani security official, also speaking on condition he not be named as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists, had earlier dismissed rumours of Mullah Omar's death as "speculation" designed to disrupt peace talks.
Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban are due to meet on Friday in Pakistan for a second round of official talks aimed at ending the war that is nearing its 14th year.
"He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there," Sediqi said, without elaborating. He said the Afghan government had been aware of Mullah Omar's death for two years and had made it public on a number of occasions.
The earlier claims of his death, however, lacked the heft and detail of Wednesday's confirmation from the Kabul authorities. They usually came from secondhand sources, were made behind closed doors, or lacked direct confirmation from the government. The Taliban denied previous claims.
Earlier Wednesday, Zafar Hashemi, President Ashraf Ghani's deputy spokesman, said the government was investigating reports that the Taliban leader was dead.
A later statement from Ghani's office said its confirmation of Mullah Omar's death was based on "accurate information" and that his demise would benefit peace efforts.
"The Afghan government believes that the ground for the Afghan peace talks is more solid now than before and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity to join the peace process," the statement said.
However, Mullah Omar's death could complicate the process as it removes a figurehead for the insurgents, who until now have appeared to act collectively but are believed to be split on whether to continue the war or negotiate with the government of Ghani, who assumed office last year.
"Whether he is dead or alive is important because he is the collective figure for the Taliban," said a Western diplomat with connections to the Taliban leadership. "If he is dead, it would be much more difficult to get negotiations with the Taliban because there would be no collective figure to rally around and take collective responsibility for entering peace talks." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists.
Mullah Omar's death raises questions about the authority of Taliban representatives who attended the first round of peace talks in Pakistan on July 7, as well as earlier informal meetings in Qatar and Norway.
It is widely believed that the Taliban has split among supporters and detractors of the peace talks as their war on the Afghan government has intensified in recent months. Many observers believe that the war is being directed on the battlefield by leaders who believe they can defeat government forces.
The Taliban, or at least a faction of the insurgent group, released a statement on July 15 purportedly made by Mullah Omar in support of the peace process.
Taliban insurgents have spread their war from the traditional southern and eastern heartlands bordering Pakistan to northern Afghanistan this year.
In recent weeks, the insurgents have taken control of remote districts in Badakhshan province, and continue to launch mass attacks on districts in Kunduz province, a strategically located region bordering Tajikistan.
The strategy has spread Afghan military resources thin after U.S. and NATO forces ended their combat mission at the end of last year.