Pakistan says Taliban chief is probably dead

Pakistan believes Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who has a $5-million US bounty on his head, was probably killed with his wife and bodyguards in a missile attack, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Friday.

An intelligence officer in South Waziristan told Reuters that Mehsud’s funeral had already taken place, while Pakistani media cited their own security sources saying Mehsud was dead.

“He was killed with his wife and he was buried in Nargosey,” the officer said, referring to a tiny settlement about 1km, from the site of the missile attack, believed carried out by a pilotless US drone.

Malik said: “We suspect he was killed in the missile strike. We have some information, but we don’t have material evidence.”

Diplomats in Islamabad say Mehsud’s death would mark a major coup for Pakistan, but many doubt it will help Western troops fighting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan as most of his focus has been on attacking Pakistan’s government and security forces.

Retired brigadier Mehmood Shah, former chief of security in the tribal areas, said his Mehsud’s death would be “quite a setback” for the Taliban.

“He is the one man who really organised the Taliban, kept unity among them and really forwarded the agenda with a lot of strategic thinking,” said Shah.

Karin von Hippel, a security expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, doubted whether the removal of one Taliban leader would have a lasting impact.

“What happens ... is another comes in and takes their place pretty quickly,” von Hippel said.

She reckoned there were more than 40 militia commanders among the Pakistani Taliban, and their relationship with the Afghan Taliban was sometimes hazy.

“I’m not sure we have a very good understanding of how all these these militia groups operate within Pakistan and with the networks across the border in Afghanistan,” she said.

Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the north-west, 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.

Mehsud 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 missile attacks on Mehsud territory in South Waziristan became more frequent after Pakistan ordered an offensive against him in June.

Intelligence officials and relatives had confirmed earlier that Mehsud’s second wife had been killed in the missile strike that targeted her father’s home in an outlying settlement close to Makeen village in the South Waziristan tribal region.

Intelligence agents had also picked up signs that leaders of various Taliban factions planned to gather for a shura, or council meeting, somewhere in Waziristan later on Friday.

There is speculation they will choose a new leader and the names of militants Hakimullah Mehsud, Maulana Azmatullah and Wali-ur-Rehman have surfaced as possible successors.

Hakimullah Mehsud commands Taliban militants in three tribal regions of Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram and is said to be an important leader in the Taliban hierarchy.

Like Baitullah, Azmatullah also hails from the Shahbikhel, a sub-tribe of the Mehsuds. He is an important commander and a member of Taliban shura, or council of leaders.

Wali-ur-Rehman is another shura member, and is a former spokesman for Baitullah. - Reuters

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