Taliban deny minister's defection

DOHA: Confusion reigned on Monday as to the whereabouts of Taliban foreign minister Wakel Ahmad Mutawakel amid signs of his possible defection. The Taliban maintained that the reports were false.

The official UAE news agency WAM reported that Mutawakel - who has not been seen or heard from for days in Afghanistan - went to Islamabad on Sunday and may have defected. "He may represent dissidents within the Taliban after a row with Mullah Mohammad Omar," WAM said, quoting informed sources. The UAE had cut off ties with the Taliban in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Taliban's former charge d'affaires in Abu Dhabi, Aziz Abdurrahman, was quoted by the Qatari channel as denying reports that the minister had defected. "This has no impact on the unity of the Taliban," he said, adding that the Islamic militia "is seeking mediation" by Islamic countries with the United States.

Subsequently, Arab satellite news station Al-Jazeera reported that Mutawakel arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) overnight seeking to push Islamic countries to mediate with the United States, an Arab television station said on Monday.

According to Al-Jazeera, the trip by Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, who went to Pakistan on Sunday, was allegedly made "in consultation" with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The Taliban, however, denied reports that foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel had left the country and said their supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was still alive. Officials of the United Arab Emirates also maintained, that Mutawakel was not in the country. "He is not here," an official source said.

The report came as Afghanistan's influential ex-monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah sent a senior delegation to Pakistan for talks with President Pervez Musharraf, sources close to the former royal family said Sunday.

But sources said the dispatch of the delegation has upset the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, with which the former monarch agreed on October 1 to form a supreme council that can elect a head of state and transitional government.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell left for South Asia on Sunday in an attempt to strike a delicate balance between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan as well as explore options for post-Taliban Afghanistan.

With the US-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan prompting violent anti-US protests and exacerbating India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir, the State Department has classified Powell's itinerary as "secret."