Taliban says it did not know al-Qaeda leader was in Kabul, warns US to ‘never repeat’ drone strike

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The Taliban has issued its first official comments on the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike on Kabul, saying the group had no knowledge of the wanted militant’s presence in the Afghan capital.

“An air strike was carried out on a residential house in Kabul city, two days later, US president Joe Biden claimed that US troops had targeted al-Qaeda leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri in this attack,” a statement issued by the interim Taliban government on Thursday read.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri's arrival and stay in Kabul,” the Taliban claimed in the statement.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said the group was investigating the incident, and warned the US it would bear responsibility for unspecified “consequences” if such drone strikes are ever “repeated again”.

On Monday, president Joe Biden said the US killed Zawahiri with a missile fired from a drone while the militant stood out on a balcony at his Kabul hideout on Sunday, one of the most decisive moments in the US’s campaign to avenge the 9/11 attacks since Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in 2011.

Taliban officials added that the leaders of the interim government have instructed their investigative and intelligence agencies to carry out a “comprehensive and serious investigation into the various aspects of the incident”.

The militant administration said there was no threat to any country, including America, from the Taliban after the killing of the al-Qaeda leader — who was ranked as FBI’s most wanted terrorist — amid fears of a backlash from the militant organisations mostly operating out of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, the Taliban has strongly criticised the drone strike, saying the US invaded Afghanistan’s territory to carry out the attack on the former Egyptian medic turned terrorist mastermind, and “violated all international principles”.

The designated Taliban representative to the United Nations, based in Doha, said that the interim government operating from Kabul and its leadership was not aware “of what is being claimed [about Zawahiri], nor any trace there".

"Investigation is underway now to find out about the veracity of the claim," the spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said, adding that the results of the investigation would be shared publicly.

The Taliban leaders were initially tight-lipped about the drone strike which claimed Zawahiri’s life, at first admitting a drone strike had taken place and criticising it but not mentioning the al-Qaeda leader. An initial statement claimed the house that was hit was empty.

The death of the al-Qaeda chief in an affluent part of Kabul has raised concerns that the group was operating or at least being sheltered on Afghan soil.

Officials in the US have suggested that Washington will continue to target al-Qaeda’s presence in Kabul to make sure that Afghanistan does not again become a refuge for "terrorists plotting against the United States".

"We will remain vigilant and take action as needed, just like we did this week," the unnamed White House official warned, adding that the Biden administration will still engage with Taliban "when it can help advance American interests".

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