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05 Aug 2009 14:37
The wife of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was among three people killed on Wednesday in a missile strike by a suspected United States drone in the South Waziristan tribal region, relatives told Reuters.
According to a relative of the dead wife, Mehsud was not present when the missiles struck a house belonging to his father-in-law in Makeen, an almost inaccessible village in the heart of Mehsud lands on the Afghan border.
“Baitullah is safe and alive,” Iqbal Mehsud, a cousin of the dead woman, told Reuters by telephone.
The US has placed a $5-million reward on the head of Mehsud, an ally of al-Qaeda widely regarded in Pakistan as Public Enemy No. 1.
Shortly before 1am (19.00GMT on Tuesday), two missiles hit the sprawling, high-walled compound of Ikramuddin Mehsud, a cleric whose daughter married Baitullah Mehsud last November.
At least two militants were killed in the attack, according to a security official in Waziristan.
Relatives confirmed Mehsud’s wife was also killed, and said four children from the extended family living in the house were among the wounded.
Ikramuddin’s daughter was Mehsud’s second wife.
Mehsud has no children by his first wife.
The use of airpower is a contentious issue in the conflict raging in the ethnic Pashtun tribal lands straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the guerrillas melt into the population and civilian deaths can harden support for the Taliban.
In the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, an air strike by Western forces late on Tuesday killed three boys and a man from one family, villagers said. US forces denied the allegation.
US missile attacks on Mehsud territory in South Waziristan became more frequent after the Pakistan government ordered a military offensive against him in June.
Pakistan forces have also bombarded Mehsud’s stronghold with air raids and artillery. The army has sealed roads around Mehsud’s mountain redoubt and villagers have fled the area, but as the days have dragged on, doubts have grown about whether the army intends to launch a full-blown assault.
Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007, and his fighters have been behind a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
He is accused of being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, a charge he has denied. Conspiracy theories abound over who killed the former prime minister.
US drone attacks had hitherto mostly targeted lands held by Taliban leaders from the Wazir tribe as their territory borders Afghanistan and they have been more involved in the Afghan insurgency.
South Waziristan’s serrated mountain ridges, dried out river beds and gullies and low chaparral provide perfect terrain for guerrilla warfare, and Mehsud has a force of battle-hardened fighters variously estimated at between 10 000 and more than 20 000.
Analysts believe the army won’t risk opening another front until it has finished a campaign against the Taliban in the Swat valley, far to the east and closer to the capital, Islamabad.
The military said on Wednesday that eight militants were killed in Swat and neighbouring districts. More than 1 800 militants have been killed since the Swat campaign began in late April, according to the military, but there are no independent casualty estimates available.—Reuters
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