Speculation is swirling around the status of Afghan Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who has been absent from meetings and public appearances for at least three months as the COVID-19 coronavirus ravages Afghanistan.
The deadly disease is spreading at alarming rates, with Afghan officials warning of a coming "disaster" as hospitals run out of beds and the death toll continues to surge.
The Taliban boasted of their readiness to fight the coronavirus when it first reached Afghanistan, but now the insurgents are struggling to curb its spread in their strongholds.
In fact, many Taliban fighters and leaders have contracted COVID-19, including Haibatullah, according to sources within the group.
"Our leader is sick, but he is recovering," senior Taliban military leader Maulawi Muhammad Ali Jan Ahmed told Foreign Policy magazine on June 1.
But three Taliban members in Quetta told the magazine they suspect that Haibatullah died from the illness.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid on June 2 denied that Haibatullah or any other senior leaders had contracted the disease or died.
Doubts and dubious claims
Haibatullah's absence from meetings and public appearances for weeks -- and the Taliban's history of lying and covering up a leader's death -- raises doubts about Mujahid's claims.
A Taliban official in Quetta told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that he could neither confirm nor deny the leader's death.
"Nearly all the Taliban leadership in Doha has the bug," a senior Afghan government official told Foreign Policy on the condition that he not be identified.
Even Haibatullah's annual message marking Eid ul Fitr was a written statement, not a video or audio message that would assure the Taliban's rank and file of his wellness.
In the statement, he urged readers to seek medical help for the disease, but he insisted the virus was caused by humanity's "transgression against Allah's religion".
To stop the virus, Muslims should "seek forgiveness from Allah and stop violating his commands", Haibatullah said.
"The majority of Taliban leaders in Quetta, Peshawar and Qatar were infected with the coronavirus," said Jawed Kohistani, a military intelligence affairs analyst in Kabul.
"The health of Taliban leaders in Quetta and Peshawar has improved, but Mullah Haibatullah's absence from the Taliban's leadership meetings strengthens the possibility of his death," he said.
"I have spoken to some sources who are in contact with the Taliban, and as they spoke, they used the word 'late' for Haibatullah, which shows that he may not be alive," he said.
'Serious disagreements' among Taliban leaders
Internal strife among Taliban factions is one reason the group would want to deny the top leader's death, Kohistani said.
"There are serious disagreements within the Taliban leadership, and Mullah Haibatullah has been missing for some time," he said. "He has either died of the coronavirus or is under surveillance."
A week before the signing of the agreement between the United States and the militant group, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar went to Quetta to resolve feuds and gain approval from the Taliban leaders, said Kohistani. Mullah Muhammad Rasool, Mullah Manan Niazi and Abdul Raouf Khadem pledged allegiance to Baradar.
"But Mullah Haibatullah was not in the meeting," he added.
"There are serious disagreements among the Taliban leaders, and the group is managed by [the late] Mullah [Mohammad] Omar's group and led by Mullah [Mohammad] Yaqoob, while the majority of Mullah Haibatullah's and Mullah Akhtar Osmani's supporters within the Taliban group have been removed from their positions," he said.
Aminullah Shariq, a political affairs analyst in Kabul and former governor of Paktika Province, Afghanistan, also speculated about the Taliban leader's death.
"Mullah Haibatullah's absence from the Taliban's important and decision-making meetings shows that the Taliban leader has died or was killed because of internal feuds," he said.
"The Taliban hid Mullah Omar's death so that the fighters would not disintegrate and disagreements would not deepen among them," he said.
Internal tensions within the Taliban emerged shortly after the death of Taliban founding leader Mullah Omar was made public on July 9, 2015 -- more than two years after he had actually died.
"The Taliban are in a critical situation," Shariq said. "On the one hand, they have an agreement with the United States, and on the other hand they are deciding on intra-Afghan talks."
"The group is lying like before, and it is hiding the death of its leader so that there won't be any division within the leadership and the ranks of commanders and fighters and so that it can gain more concessions in the peace process," he said.
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]