KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban in Afghanistan insisted Wednesday that their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was alive, saying a text message and Internet posting announcing his death were fake.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that the early morning announcement about Mullah Omar was the result of a hack.
"He is overseeing operations in the country," Mujahid told The Associated Press. "Outsiders must have hacked into Taliban phones and the website." Mujahid blamed U.S. intelligence agencies, saying they were trying "to demoralize the Taliban."
Mullah Omar has led the decade-long insurgency against the U.S.-led military coalition and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. He ruled most of Afghanistan as leader of its Taliban government before the United States and its allies invaded on Oct. 7, 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Violence has spiked recently as Afghan security forces start to take charge of security in seven areas — a process that is to continue until they are in the lead across the nation by 2014, when foreign combat troops will be gone or in supportive roles.
On Sunday, Bamiyan province, a relatively peaceful area in central Afghanistan, became the first area to begin transition. Two days later, U.S. forces turned over control of Mehterlam, the capital of Laghman province in the east.
On Wednesday, coalition forces transferred responsibility in Lashkar Gah, the provincial province of Helmand in the south.
"We are handing over the responsibility and duty of the security, stability, development and future prosperity of our people to the powerful hands of our chosen brave youths and countrymen," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said at a ceremony in Lashkar Gah.
Later this week, transition is to begin in Herat, the provincial capital of Herat province in the west; Panjshir province, north of Kabul; and Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province in the north.
Insurgents have been targeting the transition areas to convince the Afghan people that they cannot trust Afghan security forces to protect them.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in Mazar-i-Sharif, killing four civilians, including a child, said Sher Jan Durani, a spokesman for the provincial police chief. More than 10 others were injured in the bombing, which occurred in the south end of the provincial capital of Balkh province.
Earlier this week, U.S. forces turned over control of Mehterlam, the capital of Laghman province, and all of Bamiyan province, which has seen little violence. All of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district is already in the hands of Afghan forces.
Also Wednesday, a gunbattle killed three Afghan police officers and two insurgents in the southern city of Kandahar. Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said police came under fire overnight when they surrounded a home where insurgents were believed to be hiding.
Sediqqi said the three dead policemen included the district chief.
Twin explosions late Tuesday in the eastern city of Ghazni killed four civilians and wounded more than 20, said provincial police chief Zirawer Zahid.
NATO also announced it had killed numerous insurgents belonging to the al-Qaida affiliated Haqqani network during a Tuesday raid in the eastern province of Paktika, along the border with Pakistan.
It did not provide an exact number for the insurgents killed in the Afghan-led operation. The Haqqani network, which supports the Taliban, operates in a number of Afghanistan's eastern provinces and retains safe havens in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. NATO also said it killed several insurgents during a raid to capture a Taliban leader in eastern Nangarhar province.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.