Pakistan’s prime minister on Wednesday hailed the military’s “success” against the Taliban, as the rebels reeled from the arrest of a top spokesperson and the apparent death of their leader.
Intelligence officials were on Wednesday interrogating Maulvi Omar, a senior spokesperson for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), after he was captured on Monday by a local militia in Mohmand tribal district bordering Afghanistan.
The arrest came less than two weeks after the reported death of most-wanted Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, and after the military claimed to have cleared three northwest districts of insurgents.
A Taliban official again denied the death of their top commander, vowing that proof would be presented to the media soon, as the war of words between the government and the rebels over his fate continued.
“Terrorism and extremism are eating at Pakistan like termites,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a speech in the eastern city of Faisalabad broadcast live on television.
“Our brave military fought the terrorists, they were martyred also, and with the blessings of Allah we achieved success,” he added.
Pakistan launched a military operation in the northwest districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat after armed Islamist militants advanced to within 100km of Islamabad last April in defiance of a peace deal.
After declaring the districts cleared of Taliban last month, the military turned its attention to the tribal belt along the Afghan border, where a United States missile strike in early August reportedly killed Mehsud.
Pakistan has stopped short of confirming the warlord’s death, but government and security officials say that detained spokesperson Omar has given information on his leader’s apparent demise.
“He has confirmed the death of Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike,” an intelligence official told Agence France-Presse.
Such reports cannot be independently verified because Omar has not been presented to the media and the site of the missile strike is in a remote area outside government control, while the Taliban deny Mehsud’s death.
“There is no truth in the statement attributed to Maulvi Omar. He has not said this himself. This is what the [intelligence] agencies are saying,” Omar Khalid, TTP chief in Mohmand district, told Agence France-Presse by telephone.
“I have spoken to Baitullah Mehsud two days ago and he told me that his message will be issued to the media soon.”
US and Pakistani officials accuse Mehsud of masterminding the 2007 assassination of ex-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and blame him for the deaths of hundreds of people in bomb attacks over the past two years.
Analysts have said that the Taliban are in disarray as they battle to select another leader, but warn that they could regroup.
And despite the military’s claims of success in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir, Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah remains at large.
Skirmishes also continue, raising fears that the Taliban are regrouping in the mountains, a tactic militants adopted after previous offensives. — AFP