Pakistan’s Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who led a violent campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations against the Pakistani government, has been killed in a U.S. missile strike, a militant commander and aide to Mehsud said Friday.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in Islamabad that intelligence showed Mehsud had been killed in Wednesday’s missile strike on his father-in-law’s house in Pakistan’s lawless tribal area, but authorities would travel to the site to verify his death.
Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials said the CIA was behind the strike. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,” Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told The Associated Press by telephone. He would not give any further details.
Mehsud’s demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaida.
However, Mehsud has deputies who could take his place. Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Taliban commanders were already believed to be meeting in the lawless tribal areas Friday to choose a replacement.
Three Pakistani intelligence officials said the likeliest successor was Mehsud’s deputy, Hakim Ullah, a commander known for recruiting and training suicide bombers. Two other prominent possibilities, the officials said, were Azmat Ullah and Waliur Rehman, also close associates of Mehsud.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Whether a new leader could wreak as much havoc as Mehsud depends largely on how much pressure the Pakistani military continues to put on the network, especially in the lawless tribal area of South Waziristan.
Mehsud has al-Qaida connections and has been suspected in the killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan views him as its top internal threat and has been preparing an offensive against him.
For years, the U.S. considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al-Qaida, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
That view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud’s power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilize the U.S. ally and threaten the entire region.
The Pakistani intelligence officials said Mehsud’s body was buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan, near the site of the missile strike.
One official said he had seen a classified intelligence report stating Mehsud was dead and buried, but that agents had not seen the body since the area is under Taliban control.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Islamabad he could confirm the death of Mehsud’s wife but not of the Taliban leader himself, although information pointed in that direction.
“Yes, (a) lot of information is pouring in from that area that he’s dead, but I’m unable to confirm unless I have solid evidence,” he said.
Another senior Pakistani intelligence official said phone and other communications intercepts — he would not be more specific — had led authorities to suspect Mehsud was dead, but he also stressed there was no definitive evidence yet.
An American counterterrorism official said the U.S. government was also looking into the reports. The official indicated the United States did not yet have physical evidence — remains — that would prove who died. But he said there were other ways of determining who was killed in the strike. He declined to describe them.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition his name not be used, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law’s house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor, when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief’s funeral.
Last year, a doctor for Mehsud announced the militant leader had died of kidney failure, but the reports turned out to be false.
In Afghanistan, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Mehsud’s fighters would cross the border into eastern Afghanistan occasionally to help out one of most ruthless Afghan insurgent leaders Siraj Haqqani.
“He was an international terrorist that affected India, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Azimi said without confirming Mehsud was dead.
In March, the State Department authorized a reward of up to $5 million for Mehsud. Increasingly, American missiles fired by unmanned drones have focused on Mehsud-related targets.
Pakistan publicly opposes the strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it harder for the army to operate. Still, many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.
Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military was determined to finish off Pakistan’s Taliban.
“It is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mehsud’s group and it will continue till Baitullah Mehsud’s group is eliminated forever,” he said.
Pakistan’s record on putting pressure on the Taliban network is spotty. It has used both military action and truces to try to contain Mehsud over the years, but neither tactic seemed to work, despite billions in U.S. aid aimed at helping the Pakistanis tame the tribal areas.
Mehsud was not that prominent a militant when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions. In fact, he has struggled against such rivals as Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who had spent time in Guantanamo Bay.
But a February 2005 peace deal with Mehsud appeared to give him room to consolidate and boost his troop strength. Within months of that accord, dozens of pro-government tribal elders in the region were gunned down on his command.
In December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan’s Taliban movement. Under his guidance, the group killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks.
Analysts say the reason for Mehsud’s rise in the militant ranks is his alliances with al-Qaida and other violent groups. U.S. intelligence has said al-Qaida has set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud’s South Waziristan stronghold and neighboring North Waziristan.
Mehsud has no record of attacking targets in the West, although he has threatened to attack Washington.
However, he is suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. Pakistan’s former government and the CIA have named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister. He has denied a role.
Munir Ahmad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros, Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan in Islamabad, and Pamela Hess in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Source: Yahoo! New Service