ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The reported capture of the former Taliban defense minister will likely boost Pakistan's anti-terror credentials and deliver a setback to the insurgent movement, but some doubt it will curb militant violence.
Pakistani intelligence officials said Friday that Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, one of the top deputies of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, was arrested in the southwestern city of Quetta this week.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
The Pakistani government did not formally announce Akhund's arrest, which would be the highest-ranking Afghan militant to be captured since the ouster of the regime in 2001.
With official confirmation lacking, a Taliban spokesman dismissed the report as "rumor," claiming he had spoken with Akhund by telephone Friday. "There is no truth in the report. I have told you, I have talked to him. He is in Afghanistan," Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told The Associated Press by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
In December, the Taliban issued a similar denial over the killing of a top Omar lieutenant, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, who was later confirmed to have died in a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials sought to play up Akhund's reported capture, saying it would have a noticeable effect on the Taliban's command and control structure.
"He was a very important person in the Taliban movement," said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Defense Ministry. "It will be a big blow to Taliban morale."
Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said Wednesday before news of Akhund's arrest broke that intelligence showed taking out Taliban leaders such Osmani had a bigger impact on the Taliban than U.S. military operations against the group.
But Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban, said he expected the impact of Akhund's arrest would be limited, as the militants have become increasingly flexible in their operations.
"The arrest will demoralize them, but I don't think it will decrease the number of Taliban attacks," he said. "Like al-Qaida, the Taliban has become fairly autonomous. People gain responsibility and they actually do things on their own."
The reported arrest came on the same day Vice President Dick Cheney made a swift visit to Islamabad to express concern over al-Qaida regrouping along the border and a feared Taliban spring offensive in Afghanistan. Taliban-led militants have staged a resurgence in the past year, particularly in their former southern heartland, threatening Afghan President Hamid Karzai's elected government. The explosion of violence has demonstrated the Taliban's ability to regenerate after years of military pressure, drawing on recruits from Pashtun villages in southern and eastern Afghanistan and jihadi volunteers from Pakistan. Islamabad, which already has 80,000 troops along the frontier, has come under growing international pressure to crack down on cross-border militancy. Akhund's arrest is a feather in Pakistan's cap as a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, but it also exposes an awkward truth that Islamabad has repeatedly sought to deny: that Afghan militants hide not just in the country's border regions, but in its cities, too. The capture also adds credence to Karzai's claim that the Taliban insurgency is commanded from Quetta. Karzai has said he believes Omar himself is hiding in the city, but Musharraf maintains the fugitive militant, who has a $10 million bounty on his head, is in southern Afghanistan. AP-CS-03-02-07 1608EST