ISLAMABAD (AP) – The U.S. resumed missile strikes in Pakistan’s northwest Tuesday, nearly a week after one reportedly killed the country’s Taliban chief, hitting a hide-out believed to be frequented by his supporters and killing at least eight suspected militants, intelligence officials said.
Two officials put the death toll at 14.
The latest missile attack came as the Taliban continued to deny their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in last week’s strike, and amid conflicting reports of a power struggle among those trying to decide who should succeed him. Intelligence officials say meetings are being held in the South Waziristan tribal region to try to name an heir.
Also Tuesday, at least a dozen rockets slammed into Peshawar, Pakistan’s main northwest city, killing two civilians, while militants launched an assault on a paramilitary base nearby, authorities said.
Tuesday’s missile strike hit a compound in the Kani Guram area of South Waziristan, a known Mehsud stronghold. Two intelligence officials in the Pakistani capital said Mehsud commanders had regularly visited the site. They said they did not know if the militants gathered at the site Tuesday were involved in trying to decide who would succeed Mehsud.
Two other intelligence officials based in the northwest said the strike killed 14 militants. It destroyed the facility, they said.
All of the intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the record.
The Taliban have vowed retaliation against the government for what it says are false reports that Mehsud died.
Pakistani and U.S. officials have said Mehsud is almost certainly dead and that there may be a power struggle over for succession.
The rocket attacks on a residential area of Peshawar sent panicked residents running from their homes shortly after 1 a.m., police official Nisar Khan said. At least two civilians were killed and 10 others wounded.
Taliban militants often target security outposts in the countryside with heavy weapons, but rocket attacks are rare in Pakistan’s cities. “It is an act of terrorism, but we don’t know who the attackers were,” Khan told The Associated Press.
Hours later, a group of militants attacked a paramilitary Frontier Corps base in Basai, outside Peshawar, the military said in a statement. It said three militants were killed in the gunbattle, but gave no casualty figures for the paramilitary.
No one claimed immediate responsibility for the assaults, Khan said, but Peshawar is close to the Taliban-infested tribal areas.
A top Pakistani official said supporters of Mehsud were fighting with each other after his death. “The current position is that their men are scattered, and they are fighting with each other,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in comments broadcast by a local news channel Tuesday. However, one contender for the leadership, Hakimullah, phoned The Associated Press on Monday and railed against Pakistani government claims that he himself had been killed in succession infighting. He also insisted Mehsud was alive
and his supporters unified.
Analysts have suggested that it could be in the interests of top commanders within Mehsud’s alliance, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who would replace him.
Mehsud’s death would be a major blow for the Pakistani Taliban. He brought various Islamist militant factions under a unified if loose command that posed an unprecedented threat to the Pakistani security forces.