A senior Taliban commander who is said to have held secret talks with Western diplomats about the possibility of changing sides has been critically wounded and captured by Pakistani security sources, according to reports.
Mansoor Dadullah and five armed companions were ambushed as they were crossing back across the border from Afghanistan, said the Pakistani Army spokesman, Maj-Gen Athar Abbas. The firefight took place, he said, in the Qila Saifullah district of Baluchistan which has in the past seen fighting between local tribal groups and government forces.
Dadullah's arrest came less than two weeks after Abu Laith al-Libi, an al-Qa'ida chief, was killed in what was almost certainly an American missile strike inside Pakistan. Although the Musharraf regime denied that the US had been allowed to carry out a military operation inside its territory, officials privately claimed the mission showed that Pakistan was heeding calls to confront Islamist terrorism. The capture of Dadullah was being presented by Pakistani authorities in the same light.
But according to diplomatic and defence sources, targeting him may have had more to do with the new "Great Game" being played in Afghanistan and Pakistan with international players.
Mansoor Dadullah inherited the command of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan after his brother, Mullah Dadullah, was killed by Afghan and Nato forces, including members of Britain's Special Boat Service, in Helmand in May.
But Mansoor Dadullah is said to have subsequently held meetings with Western diplomats, acting on behalf of the British, to defect with 2,000 of his men. The Independent revealed that it was these talks, which the government of Hamid Karzai insisted were unauthorised, that led to the expulsions of Michael Semple, the acting head of the European Union mission to Afghanistan who has worked as a British diplomat in Pakistan, and Mervyn Patterson, a senior United Nations official.
Just before the two diplomats were thrown out, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that Dadullah had been dismissed from his command for "disobeying orders" and activities "against the Taliban's rules and regulations" at the orders of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar.
Elements of the Pakistani security forces, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence, are known to have close ties with the Taliban and some Western diplomatic sources said yesterday that Dadullah may have been eliminated because he had become a liability for the Islamist group and also as a warning to Taliban leaders who may contemplate negotiating with the West.
Pakistani authorities insisted there was no collusion between their security forces and Islamists or that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were in Pakistan.