KABUL, Afghanistan — KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. forces killed a senior Taliban figure, who was also an associate of Osama bin Laden, in an airstrike in a remote area of southern Afghanistan, the American military announced yesterday.
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani would be the highest-ranking Taliban figure killed by U.S. forces in a five-year manhunt that began with the fall of the Islamist militia in December 2001.
The U.S. military described the death of Osmani as a major blow for the Taliban, who have regrouped in recent months after a period of relative inactivity, aided by proceeds from a record-breaking opium crop.
The Taliban denied that Osmani had been killed. Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to be a spokesman for Taliban affairs in southern Afghanistan, acknowledged the deaths of four fighters in the airstrike Tuesday in a remote area of Helmand province.
But Ahmadi identified the most-senior figure among the dead as Mullah Abdul Zahir, a midlevel Taliban field commander.
The U.S. announcement comes in the waning days of what has been a difficult year for coalition forces in Afghanistan. At least 4,000 people have died in a surge of violence that included more than 115 suicide bombings, most of them aimed at coalition troops.
The Taliban, ousted by a U.S.-led coalition just over five years ago, have been making a concerted attempt in recent months to sharpen their offensive against about 40,000 NATO and U.S. troops in the country.
NATO, however, says it has taken the offensive, pursuing the militants to their strongholds, which mainly are clustered close to the Pakistani border in the south and east of Afghanistan.
U.S. military officials said they had used the four days since the airstrike to ascertain the identity of the commander in question, along with at least two associates who were traveling in a vehicle with him.
Col. Thomas Collins, who informed reporters of Osmani's death, declined to specify how U.S. forces had confirmed the kill. Another spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said "various means" were used to determine the commander's identity.
Collins told journalists that Osmani's absence from the scene would impede the militia's ability to plan attacks. But he also said the coalition expected that the Taliban would "put somebody else in that position."
"And we'll go after that person, too," he said.
The Afghan government initially made no independent announcement of Osmani's death. But a spokesman for the Interior Ministry confirmed it several hours after the Americans announced it.
Collins said Afghan intelligence agencies had helped piece together reports confirming that Osmani had been riding in the vehicle that was destroyed in the airstrike.
Southern Afghanistan, Osmani's base of operations, has been the scene of a rapidly escalating campaign of insurgent-initiated attacks, including suicide bombings, abductions and roadside bombs. Osmani was described by the coalition as a ringleader, quartermaster and financier of this drive.
Osmani was said to have served as a liaison between the Taliban and al-Qaida, and to have been close to bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, who has been a fugitive for the past five years.
But U.S. military officials disclosed no details about his alleged contacts with either them or with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another prominent militant leader. Bin Laden and Omar have eluded intensive manhunts by coalition forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Laura King and Wesal Zaman write for the Los Angeles Times.