ISLAMABAD (AP) – A deputy to Baitullah Mehsud claimed Saturday that the Pakistani Taliban chief was not killed by a CIA missile strike, contradicting another aide who confirmed Mehsud’s death a day earlier.
His claim, reported widely by Pakistani media, flies in the face of growing confidence among U.S. and Pakistani officials that Mehsud died, and it could be a tactical maneuver aimed at delaying a decision on who will succeed Mehsud.
Local intelligence officials acknowledged Saturday that the missile strike said to have killed the Taliban chief was carried out with Islamabad’s help, indicating growing coordination between the two countries despite Pakistan’s official disapproval of the strikes.
The deputy stating that Mehsud is alive, Hakimullah, is one of the potential successors to lead the militant group. He made the comments in phone calls to several news outlets. However, he could not provide evidence that the militant chief is still alive.
Intelligence agents said it appears likely that Hakimullah may be passed over for the top position in favor of another Mehsud aide, Waliur Rehman.
In a phone call to the Associated Press, Hakimullah said “some outside power” was spreading rumors of Mehsud’s death in the press as a means of trying to get him to come forward, thus becoming a target for a missile. Hakimullah said the Taliban would present some proof of Mehsud’s continued existence in the coming days. Asked if Mehsud could call the AP, Hakimullah said it was not possible at the moment. And asked why he did not refute the reports of Mehsud’s death earlier in the week, the militant did not answer.
Mehsud’s aide Kafayat Ullah told AP a day earlier that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives Wednesday in his stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal region. “I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,” Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told AP by telephone.
Pakistani and U.S. officials said they were getting the same reports and were reasonably confident in them, but did not have forensic evidence such as a body for irrefutable confirmation.
Pakistan considered the Al Qaeda-linked Mehsud its No. 1 internal threat. He was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide attacks across Pakistan.
The U.S. initially viewed him as less of a threat than other Taliban fighters, mainly because he tended to go after Pakistani targets instead of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. That view appeared to change as Mehsud grew in strength.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, said the CIA launched the missiles after Pakistan passed along a confirmed report that the militant chief was staying at his father-in-law’s home.
A video of the attack was shared with Pakistani authorities.
In it, Mehsud’s vehicle is seen parked inside a sprawling compound and Mehsud was also visible, said one of the intelligence officials. The official declined to give more specifics, such as exactly where Mehsud was, but said his body was clearly hit.
Pakistan has routinely condemned the American missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and anger the local population, especially when civilians are killed. Analysts suspect that public stance is simply a face-saving measure for the government, and that it secretly cooperating in the attacks.
In any case, the strike that killed Mehsud appears to be a huge boon for the Pakistanis, and it might nudge them to go after militant leaders the U.S. sees as a greater threat to its interests in neighboring Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters have been mulling who will succeed Mehsud as their top commander had yet to announce a decision three days after his death, a possible sign that a power struggle is shaping up among his followers.
Details about the Mehsud succession talks were murky. Those involved in the meeting, or shura, in South Waziristan have cut off their communications, likely out of fear their gathering could be targeted by another missile.
The exact location of the meeting also was kept secret, though a tribesman said it appeared to be somewhere in the Ladha area.
Dozens of militants, including Arabs, were heading to the gathering, but a large area was cordoned off and locals were restricted in their movements, said the tribesman, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter and fear for his life.
Aside from Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman, potential successors to Mehsud include another aide, Azmat Ullah and Qari Hussain, known for training suicide bombers.
The two intelligence officials said Mehsud’s deputies were likely to select Waliur Rehman as their new commander because Mehsud had suggested his name as his successor. Hakimullah and Qari Hussain, however, remain strong contenders, both known for being ruthless.