PESHAWAR, Pakistan, (AP) – Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud has died, the country’s top civilian security official told The Associated Press Wednesday, giving the government’s first categorical confirmation of the death of the feared militant leader.
Reports of Mehsud’s death emerged after a spate of U.S. missiles hit his stronghold in Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt in mid-January. Mehsud was said to have died of wounds suffered in one of the strikes.
The Taliban have denied his death, but have backed off an initial promise to prove the 20-something still lives.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik and a senior intelligence official told AP that Mehsud was dead, but neither gave details as to when or how he died. The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record.
In late January, a tribal elder told the AP that he attended Mehsud’s funeral in the Mamuzai area of Orakzai after Mehsud died at his in-laws’ home. The elder spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the Taliban.
But some local media reports, citing unnamed Taliban sources, say Mehsud died more recently in the Multan area in central Pakistan on his way to get medical treatment in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.
U.S. counterterrorism officials also have come to believe Mehsud is dead, apparently gaining certainty each day the Taliban fail to prove otherwise.
Still, Mehsud has been mistakenly reported dead before.
After his predecessor, fellow tribesman Baitullah Mehsud, died in an August missile strike, the Pakistani interior minister was among those who claimed Hakimullah was killed in a succession struggle. But the militant met with reporters, on camera, in the weeks afterward and went on to lead a surge of attacks across the country that left more than 600 people dead.
The Taliban also denied Baitullah Mehsud’s death for weeks until the succession question had been settled.
Hakimullah Mehsud has been considered a particularly ruthless Taliban fighter with grand ambitions.
He appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan. After that Dec. 30 attack, the U.S. ramped up its missile campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
There are reports that commanders are lining up to vy for his position as Taliban chief.
Also Wednesday, a Pakistani army Cobra helicopter gunship crashed in the remote Tirah Valley of Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Another army official said the helicopter’s pilot and gunner are missing and feared dead. He said the crash appeared to have been caused by either bad weather or a mechanical failure. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.