The US military has hailed the assassination of a top Taliban commander as a major victory in its fierce battle against insurgents in Afghanistan, but the Taliban say the wrong man was hit.
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, described as a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was killed on Tuesday in a US airstrike in southern Afghanistan where he led deadly attacks against foreign forces, the military said in a statement.
He is the highest-ranked Taliban leader the coalition has killed since US forces deployed to Afghanistan to topple the hardline regime in 2001.
"Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a senior member of the Taliban's inner circle, was killed on December 19 in Helmand Province," Tom Collins, coalition spokesman, said on Saturday.
"His death is a major achievement in the fight against extremists and their terrorist networks," Collins said.
The statement said Osmani and two associates were killed instantly in the attack near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. It did not say if his body had been recovered from the wreckage.
The Taliban denied the statement, saying the airstrike on the vehicle in a deserted part of the province killed a low-ranking Taliban commander and his three associates.
"Mullah Akhtar Osmani is alive and inside Afghanistan," spokesman Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi told reporters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"[Instead] Three days ago in a NATO operation surrounding Helmand province, a Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Zahir and three other Taliban were martyred," he said.
One Afghan intelligence source said Osmani was the commander of Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan where the Taliban-led insurgency has raged against foreign troops seeking to secure the war-ravaged nation.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Osmani was part of a 12-member Taliban leadership council and ranked fourth in the pecking order.
"He is one of the main few Taliban commanders waging the current insurgency. He is considered one of the top four Taliban leaders and is an important strategist for the militia," the source said.
"The four main Taliban military strategists and commanders are Mullah Dadullah, Mullah Obaidullah, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Osmani," the source said.
Collins said Osmani was the chief of Taliban military operations in the provinces of Uruzgan, Nimroz, Kandahar, Farah, Herat and Helmand.
He organized deadly operations, including suicide attacks and roadside bomb blasts, that targeted foreign and Afghan forces.
He also orchestrated kidnappings and other crimes against locals using Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, the coalition said.
Some 4,000 people, many of them militants but also troops and civilians, have died in Taliban-led violence this year.