Bannu, AP—Gunmen killed one of the Pakistani Taliban’s top leaders in a tribal region near the Afghan border on Monday, intelligence officials and militant commanders said.
Asmatullah Shaheen Bitani and three aides died in a shooting in Darga Mandi area of North Waziristan, the four officials and two militants said.
Bitani’s cousin also confirmed his death, saying his family was preparing for a funeral and burial.
The officials said it was not clear whether the killing was due to militant infighting, or if Pakistani security forces killed him or if Bitani was shot by someone who wanted the government bounty on his head of 10 million rupees (95,000 US dollars).
No one has claimed responsibility. The militant group has not yet responded with any statement—usual after such high-profile killings. All officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the media on the record.
Bitani, who sat on the Pakistani Taliban’s executive council, was appointed interim leader of the militant group after a suspected US drone strike killed his former chief Hakimullah Mehsud last year.
He has since been replaced by another leader, Mullah Fazlullah, who was chosen by the executive council.
The Pakistani Taliban are a loose network of militant groups. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died in their war to overthrow the government and enforce their own harsh brand of Islamic Shari’a law.
North Waziristan is home to a mix of local and foreign Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups. Some militants focus their attacks only against the US-led International Security Assistance Force which is fighting the Afghan branch of the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.
Afghan warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur heads one of these groups. He has a non-aggression treaty with the Pakistani government and controls the Darga Mandi area where Bitani was killed.
Pakistan’s government recently started peace talks with the Taliban, but negotiations were suspended after the killing of 23 soldiers by a faction of the militant group, along with a militant-claimed bombing in southern port city of Karachi that killed 13 police officers.
Ever since, Pakistani Air Force jets have been pounding militants’ hideouts in tribal regions near the Afghan border.
In the latest strikes, the air force hit militants’ compounds and a bomb-making factory in the Tirah valley in the Khyber tribal region, an army and an intelligence official said late on Sunday.
They claimed that at least 28 militants were killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media on the record. There was no way to independently confirm the report as the remote tribal area is off-limits to journalists.
Also on Monday, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest blew himself up near a security checkpoint close to the residence of the Iranian Consul General in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing two Pakistani security guards, provincial police chief Nasir Durrani said.
Another senior police officer, Muhammad Faisal, said nine guards were wounded.
Durrani said the suicide attacker got out of a car and moved towards a checkpoint outside the Iranian diplomat’s residence but was challenged by a guard and blew himself up.