KHAR, Pakistan (AP) – Leading Pakistani Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud has been appointed the new head of the militant group, the aide to another commander said Saturday, weeks after Washington and Islamabad said the militants’ chief, Baitullah Mehsud, was almost certainly killed by a missile strike.
Bakht Zada, a close aide to commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, told The Associated Press that a 42-member Taliban council, or shura, appointed a new head because Baitullah was ill. Top Taliban commanders have insisted Baitullah was not killed by an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike, but they have provided no proof he is still alive.
A captured Taliban spokesman reportedly acknowledged to authorities earlier this week that Baitullah was dead.
Pakistan’s Taliban is a loose alliance of disparate groups and tribal factions, and government and intelligence officials have said they are embroiled in a bitter leadership struggle which could lead them to deny their leader is dead until a firm replacement is found.
“I do confirm that a shura held Friday … has elected Hakimullah Mehsud the new chief of the Taliban,” Zada said, adding that it was a unanimous decision. “Now all these talks of differences should end. There have not been any differences ever.”
Zada said the shura had spoken by phone to Faqir Mohammad and Maulana Fazlullah, the notorious commander of the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern Swat Valley, to offer them the slot, but that they both refused citing personal reasons. He said the two, who are believed to be in their 50s, said they were not young enough to assume the leadership of the militants.
Another close Mohammad aide, Sher Zamin, also confirmed that Hakimullah had been elected as the new Taliban chief. “It is a consensus among all Taliban that Hakimullah Mehsud is the best choice,” he told The Associated Press.
On Wednesday, Mohammad told The Associated Press he himself had assumed the role of acting head of the Taliban until the shura could appoint a new leader, because Baitullah was too ill to lead.
Zada said Baitullah wanted to appoint someone else to lead the Taliban because of his ill health. He said the shura was held in Orakzai Agency in northwestern Pakistan’s lawless tribal area, along the border with Afghanistan.
Members of the Mehsud tribe use the same last name.
Hakimullah Mehsud, the 28-year-old military chief of Baitullah’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, commanded three tribal regions and has a reputation as Baitullah’s most ruthless deputy. He had been considered one of the top contenders to take over.
Authorities have said he has been behind threats to foreign embassies in Islamabad, and there is a 10 million rupee ($120,000) ounty on his head. His men have been blamed for attacking U.S. and NATO supply convoys. He claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year. He met journalists for the first time in November 2008, when he offered to take them on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan. He threatened suicide bombings in Pakistani cities in retaliation for a recent army offensive in the Swat Valley.