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American troops have captured a senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a US official said Friday, in what could prove a major blow to the Islamic militant group just as Kabul is trying to arrange peace talks.
"I can confirm that US forces did capture... terrorist leader Latif Mehsud in a military operation," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, describing him as a senior commander in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
She gave no details of the operation and did not say where or when his capture took place, as the news filtered out as US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Kabul for a surprise visit.
Pentagon officials however said Mehsud was still inside Afghanistan, without specifying where.
"As part of the armed conflict against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, authorized by Congress in the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Mehsud was captured and is being lawfully held by US military forces in Afghanistan," said Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith.
The Washington Post reported however that he had been seized recently in eastern Afghanistan, and was snatched away from Afghan intelligence operatives who had been trying to recruit him as a possible go-between for peace talks between Kabul, Islamabad and the Taliban.
Kerry landed in Kabul for difficult talks about leaving a residual US force behind in Afghanistan after international forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
President Hamid Karzai, who said earlier this week that he was prepared to walk away from the talks on the bilateral security agreement if Kabul was not satisfied with the deal, was reportedly livid about Mehsud's capture.
"The Americans forcibly removed him and took him to Bagram," a Karzai spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told the Post.
Bagram air base is a military base that includes a detention facility where the United States continues to hold more than 60 foreign fighters among about 3,000 detainees.
Mehsud had only agreed to meet with agents from Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security after months of conversations, he said.
Afghan authorities believed their contacts with Mehsud has been one of the most significant operations carried out by Afghan forces, who are gradually assuming sole control for the country's security, Faizi told the Post.
"Mehsud is a senior commander in TTP and served as a trusted confidante of the group's leader Hakimullah Mehsud," Harf said.
She told reporters the TTP had claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Times Square, New York, in 2010.
The group "had also vowed to attack the US homeland again," Harf said, adding it had also been behind attacks on US diplomats in Pakistan as well as incidents that killed Pakistani civilians.
It was not immediately clear if Latif Meshud is related to Hakimullah Mehsud, who took over as the commander of the Pakistani Taliban in 2009.
Karzai in August asked Pakistan to help arrange peace talks between his government and Taliban insurgents, during a visit to Islamabad for his first talks with newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Botched efforts by the United States in June to launch peace talks with the Taliban infuriated Karzai when the Taliban opened up an office in Qatar. The office has since been shut.
The US and the international community have been working to shore up the Afghan security forces as they take on greater responsibility for security.
The United States has repeatedly pressed for the security pact to be signed by the end of this month, so the US-led NATO military coalition can schedule its withdrawal of 87,000 combat troops by December 2014.