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By Mushtaq Yusufzai and F. Brinley Bruton
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Taliban have released photos of a modest mud house in southeastern Afghanistan where they say longtime chief Mullah Mohammad Omar lived for years until his death.
Its claim is at odds with longstanding U.S. and Afghan intelligence theories that the one-eyed militant leader hid in neighboring Pakistan after the group was toppled in 2001.
A $10 million bounty had been offered for Omar, who sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks.
The Taliban have always maintained Omar lived in Afghanistan until he died in 2013.
The group, which waited until 2015 to announce Omar’s death, imposed its harsh version of Islamic law on most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Since then, Taliban militants have been fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The group has recently been involved in peace talks with American officials.
Taliban sources told NBC News that Omar lived in Zabul Province most of the time after 2001, although he also hid in nearby Uruzgan. They said he got much of his news from the BBC’s Pashto service — which uses the language spoken many people in Afghanistan.
“He used to sit in the sun and there was a small garden where he would spend some time,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
NBC News was unable to independently verify the Taliban’s claims. However, Dutch journalist Bette Dam recently unveiled research suggesting Omar lived near a U.S. base in Afghanistan, and never hid in Pakistan.
Dam described what she calls a “staggering U.S. intelligence failure” in her book “Op Zoek Naar De Vijand (Searching for an Enemy),” according to a summary of the work published this week. She says she spent five years interviewing Taliban members.
“After 2001, Mullah Omar never stepped foot in Pakistan, instead opting to hide in his native land — and for eight years, lived just a few miles from a major U.S. Forward Operating Base that housed thousands of soldiers,” she wrote.
American forces once searched the house Omar was staying in, but failed to find his hiding place, according to Dam.
An aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described Dam’s claims as “delusional.”
“We have sufficient evidence which shows he lived and died in Pakistan. Period!” Ghani’s spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri said of Omar in a tweet.
The Afghan government and U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of sheltering and supporting militants — a claim denied by Pakistan.
Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, and F. Brinley Bruton from London.