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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taliban's Main Opponent Feared Dead

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The fate of Afghan guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood was uncertain Monday after an assassination attempt that his spokesmen said had caused only minor injuries but which U.S. officials believe killed him.

Masood's spokesmen both inside and outside Afghanistan denied a report from Russia's Itar-Tass news agency that the man who has proved the chief obstacle to Taliban hopes of ruling the whole country had been killed in Sunday's blast, and said he was receiving treatment for minor chest, hand and leg wounds.

But a U.S. official in Washington later said Masood, who acquired fame as a legendary fighter against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, was believed dead.

"We believe he's dead," the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity, without giving further details about the basis for the assertion.

With the Taliban authorities themselves denying involvement in the attack, Masood's precise whereabouts were unclear.

"He is fine and in good health," a secretary for Masood said from the opposition stronghold in the Panjsher valley. He said an assassin posing as a television journalist had blown himself up after gaining access to Masood's office in northern Afghanistan. Presumably, the explosive was hidden in the man's camera.

"We have nothing to worry about his condition," the secretary said, adding that Masood was in neighboring Tajikistan. Other members of the opposition movement said that the 48-year-old guerrilla commander was still in Afghanistan.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin spoke to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov about Afghanistan on Monday, the day after the attack on Masood.

But it did not refer to Masood, whose forces control regions bordering Tajikistan, which survived its own devastating civil war in the 1990s and fears a Taliban advance to its borders.

Masood's anti-Taliban alliance is officially led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was driven from Kabul in 1996 but is recognized by the United Nations as Afghanistan's leader.

Sayed Najibullah Hashimi, a spokesman for Rabbani, said Rabbani had met Masood and had found him in good health.

"Masood is in one of his bases in Takhar after minor injuries were treated," Hashimi said, adding that Masood Khalili, the movement's ambassador to India, had been seriously wounded in the attack and had been operated on in a hospital.

Masood's spokesman in France, Mehrabodin Masstan, said there had been a dozen attempts on Masood's life in the past 20 years.

"Between now and tomorrow I believe our chief will reappear and give an interview. However, the doctor has told him not move today," he said, quoting colleagues inside Afghanistan.

Soviet forces repeatedly failed to crush Masood during the 1980s. Today he is the driving force behind the opposition to Taliban rule. Annual attacks on his Panjsher valley stronghold were repulsed and he became a romantic figure in the West.

After appearing near defeat a year ago, he has kept Taliban forces off balance with guerrilla attacks dotted across the northern half of the country.

Itar-Tass quoted unspecified sources in its report from Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe.

In Tajikistan, the Afghan embassy, which is under Masood's control, said Masood was still in Afghanistan receiving treatment. It too said there was no concern for his condition.

The Panjsher valley secretary said one of two Arab journalists interviewing Masood had blown himself up.

"This person got killed on the spot along with a colleague of ours and Masood himself received injuries on his leg, hand and chest. The wounds are minor ones," he said.

The secretary, who asked not to be named, said Masood's guards shot dead the second attacker, identified only as an Arab. They had not determined the nationalities or affiliation of the would-be assassins.

Masood's forces control the northeast of Afghanistan and are fighting the Taliban north of the capital Kabul, on the route towards the Panjsher valley, the commander's native stronghold.

Taliban chief spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen said that the Taliban were not behind the assassination attempt.

"We are not involved in the incident. If we were, we would have proudly said that because he is our enemy," Mutmaen said.

The attack on Masood came a day after a powerful blast in the capital Kabul wounded an unknown number of people inside the hard-line Islamist Taliban's interior ministry.

No one has claimed responsibility, but the Taliban have blamed previous Kabul blasts on Masood. The opposition says they are the work of dissidents within the Taliban.

Kabul is in the spotlight for the Taliban trial of foreign aid workers accused of promoting Christianity. The detainees -- four Germans, two Australians and two Americans -- were arrested more than five weeks ago on charges that could carry the death penalty. They made their first appearance in court Saturday and denied proselytizing.

The Taliban government, recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been widely accused of human rights abuses in enforcing its austere version of Islam.

The Taliban are rooted in the majority Pashtun group, while Masood is a member of the minority ethnic Tajiks and has drawn strength from minorities that feel threatened by the Pashtun drive for dominance.