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May 23, 11:09 AM EDT

US General in Afghanistan: Mansour was an obstacle to peace


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KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AP) -- The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Monday that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour was an obstacle to peace and his death will have a disruptive effect on the insurgency.

Resolute Support Commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson, said during a visit to the northern province of Kunduz that Mansour rejected the chance offered by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to participate in the peace process.

"I hope that the Taliban leadership will realize it is time to lay down their weapons and join the peace efforts, so the people of Afghanistan can enjoy peace and prosperity in the future," Nicholson said.

President Barack Obama also said Mansour's death marks an "important milestone" in the longstanding effort to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Nicholson was in Kunduz for the second time since becoming commander of the Resolute Support mission. In late September 2015, Mansour's Taliban fighters overran the city of Kunduz and held it for four days before being driven out. The takeover was a major embarrassment for Ghani's government.

Nicholson also met victims and families of people killed on Oct. 3, 2015 when U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed a Kunduz hospital run by Doctors Without Borders during the offensive to retake Kunduz. The hospital was destroyed and 42 people killed in the attack, which the Pentagon said was a mistake caused by human error.

Asadullah Amerkhail, the governor of Kunduz province, told Nicholson that, "Mansour's death will definitely have a positive impact on security. I am taking it as a positive step and I think we will now have good negotiations between the government and the Taliban."

Mansour, believed to be in his 50s, was killed when a U.S. drone fired on his vehicle in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan. He had emerged as the successor to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, whose 2013 death was only revealed last summer.

On Monday, the special assistant to Pakistan's prime minister on foreign affairs summoned U.S. Ambassador David Hale to "express concern over the drone strike on Pakistani territory," which it views as a violation of the country's sovereignty, according to a foreign ministry statement.

Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, told reporters during a press conference in Kabul that Mansour's death could cripple the Taliban.

"This year will be the year of destruction and defeat for the Taliban, as they lost their leader. This will make them weak in all parts of the country and finally this terrorist group will be destroyed," Sediqqi said.

A western diplomat in Kabul said it was widely understood that Mansour had been in contact with Iran and Russia in recent months, as he was "trying to move away from Pakistan because he didn't want to be pressured by Islamabad" into joining the peace process - implying that Mansour was seeking new international allies.

Russia and Iran are believed to have reached out to Taliban groups in recent months as a counterweight to the presence in Afghanistan of the so-called Islamic State group.

Mansour is believed to have been returning from Iran when he was targeted by the US drone.

A second diplomat said a number of Taliban faction leaders, including Mansour's rival Mullah Mohammad Rasool - believed to be held by Pakistani authorities - had been traveling to Iran over the past year, receiving some support in weapons and finance.

The diplomats spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to brief the press.

Iran's foreign ministry denied that the Mansour had visited the country. Its spokesman Hossein Jabeiri Ansari said that "relevant authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran rule out that such a person on such a date crossed into Pakistan from the Iranian border." Ansari did not elaborate.

The Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan said the killing of the Taliban leader would only exacerbate the situation by hindering the negotiation process and leading to an escalation in fighting.

Zamir Kabulov told the Interfax news agency that the Taliban field commanders would not give up, and if Mansour's deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani takes over as leader of the Taliban, "he'll show everyone what's what."

An Afghan Taliban leader said that the militant's group leadership has gathered to decide who to select as the new head of their movement. He spoke anonymously, because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He also said it is currently unclear who will be the leader, but there are at least four names on the table. They include the former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the deputies of Mullah Mansour and a leader of the Haqqani Network, which is believed to be responsible for numerous deadly attacks in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez and Mirwais Khan in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

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