Taliban announce death of ex-defense minister

By HEIDI VOGT and RAHIM FAIEZ | February 13, 2012 | 2:15 PM EST

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban's former defense minister died in a Pakistani jail in 2010, a spokesman for the insurgent group said Monday.

Little had been heard of Obaidullah Akhund since he was arrested by Pakistani authorities in 2007.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Monday that relatives have recently been informed that Obaidullah died of heart disease in a Karachi prison on March 5, 2010.

Obaidullah was one of the top deputies of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar when the Islamist regime ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was arrested in early 2007 in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta. At the time, he was the highest-ranking Taliban figure to be captured since the fall of their hardline regime in 2001.

The Taliban said they want Pakistani officials to provide details about his arrest, incarceration and death.

Obaidullah's name was among those floated earlier this year as possible representatives for potential peace talks with the insurgent group.

The Taliban are setting up an office in Qatar in the first step toward formal negotiations. The Obama administration is now considering releasing five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a starting point for talks. Republicans in Congress oppose the release of the prisoners.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Afghan government is working to sign a series of strategic partnerships with the countries providing its military and financial backing as international forces draw down and try to shift to a focus more on training Afghan forces.

On Monday, President Hamid Karzai's office said the government has signed a long-term partnership with Italy for continued financial support and military training. The agreement states that Italy will continue these efforts after 2014 — when the Afghan government is expected to take the lead in securing the country.

The statement from Karzai's office did not give any details on the rules that would govern Italian personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, or how long Italy's commitment would last.

Fighting has continued amid the talk of negotiations with the Taliban and the preparations for the handover of more security responsibility to the Afghan government.

In southern Afghanistan on Monday, a member of Britain's Royal Air Force was killed during a routine patrol in Nad Ali district of Helmand province, the British Ministry of Defense said. The death brought to at least 36 the number of international service members who have died since the beginning of the year.

Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians since the beginning of the Afghan war, with more than 3,000 killed primarily in insurgent attacks and bombings, according to a U.N. report released earlier in February. Civilians have also died in NATO operations, though in lower numbers.

Also Monday, Afghan investigators said they have confirmed that 15 civilians died in two NATO operations in Kunar and Kapisa provinces earlier this year. A NATO spokesman said the coalition regrets any civilian lives lost from the operations but that the international troops followed appropriate protocol in both instances.

In the more recent incident in Kapisa, German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman, said it was not clear if all the deaths were caused by the NATO operation.