KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban said on Wednesday that their reclusive one-eyed leader Mullah Omar was alive and accused the United States of hacking their mobile phones to claim that he was dead.
A text message sent to media from a phone belonging to a spokesman for the Islamists said: "Leadership council of IEA announces that Ameer-ul-Mumineen (Mullah Omar) has passed away. May mighty God bless him."
The IEA is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban gave themselves while in power from 1996 to 2001, when they were ousted in a US-led invasion. They have been waging a deadly insurgency ever since.
Some journalists also received an email, also seemingly from the Taliban, saying Omar had died from a heart condition, giving a lengthy obituary and naming his successor as Gul Agha, described as a close aide.
But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied Omar's demise and said his phone -- where the text message appeared to come from -- had been hacked.
"We strongly reject this claim. We are not aware of such news. Americans have hacked our mobile phones with advanced technology and sent the message to the media," said Mujahid.
A second Taliban spokesman, Qari Yosuf Ahmadi, told AFP by telephone that the messages were false and made up by Westerners to "deceive the Afghan people".
In a subsequent email he denounced the hacking as "technical larceny" and claimed the Taliban's own technical wizards were on the case.
"The technical workers of Islamic Emirate?s information and cultural commission have opened an investigation into the enemy?s technical larceny and its dirty utilisation," the email said.
Omar, the spiritual leader of the insurgency, presided over the Taliban's brief regime in Kabul which was toppled by the US for refusing to give up Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.
Violence is at a record high in the fight against the present Western-backed government and 150,000 US-led foreign troops. US and Afghan officials are trying to reach out to insurgents to broker a political solution.
On Wednesday, a bicycle bomb killed at least four people and wounded 11 others in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, police said.
The deputy provincial police chief, Abdul Rauf Taj, said explosives carried by a man with a bicycle in the Dasht-i-Shor area of the city detonated, but it was not yet clear if the man was a suicide bomber.
Washington has withdrawn 650 of 33,000 American troops due to go home by the end of summer 2012 and this week NATO is transferring security control to Afghans in seven areas, part of a country-wide process due to complete in 2014.
Abdul Wahab Salih, the deputy chief of intelligence for Kandahar city, birthplace of the Taliban, said the National Directorate for Security (NDS) had no reports of the Taliban leader's death.
A gunbattle broke out early Wednesday in the southern city after Afghan police mounted a raid on a house where at least two insurgents were holed up, killing both militants and three policemen.
Eight people were wounded in the firefight that followed a tip-off about a house in the District 1 area of the city, officials said.
One of the insurgents killed in the raid was described by interior ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi as a well-known deaf Taliban commander. He said the district's police chief was among the dead.
Local residents said the area, a web of mud-brick homes and unpaved roads, had been sealed off by foreign forces and Afghan police late Tuesday and that shops were unable to open.
The reclusive Omar has not appeared in public since 2001.
In May, shortly after US special forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan, the NDS intelligence agency said he had disappeared from his suspected hideout in Pakistan.
An Afghan intelligence source had initially called reporters to tell them on condition of anonymity that Omar had been killed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
In January, the Taliban and Pakistan's spy agency denied a report suggesting that Omar had suffered a heart attack and had been treated in Karachi.
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