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Top Taliban leader captured

Islamabad/Kabul, March 2 (Reuters): Pakistani security forces captured one of the Taliban’s three top leaders just hours after US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s unannounced visit to Pakistan earlier this week, a senior security official and Taliban sources said.

The capture of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund marked the first Pakistani arrest of a senior leader of the Islamist militia since it was driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001 and thousands of its fighters fled into Pakistan.

The sources said that Akhund, the third most senior member of the Taliban’s leadership council, was arrested late on Monday in the southwestern city of Quetta.

The arrest comes at a time when the Bush administration is facing a wave of scepticism over Pakistan’s role as an ally in the war on terrorism.

Pakistani government and military spokesmen said they had no knowledge of the arrest, including one official who had earlier denied it.

The New York Times, however, carried a report on its Web site, saying US officials in Washington had confirmed Akhund was being held.

Today’s edition of Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily, ran a front-page story, again sourced to an unnamed official, with a headline that read: “Mullah Omar’s deputy Obaidullah captured”.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousaf told Afghan Islamic Press, a Pashtun-language news agency based in Peshawar, that it was a false rumour.

But at the end of 2006 the Taliban denied for more than a week that a US air strike had killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a senior commander, in December, before confirming his death.

Cheney had asked Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to do more to stop al Qaida rebuilding from safe havens in Pakistani tribal lands and step up efforts to thwart a spring offensive by the Taliban against Afghan and Nato troops.

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