Saturday, August 8, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- A top Pakistani official says the government has information that a leading candidate to replace the Pakistani Taliban leader believed killed recently was shot dead Saturday in a gunfire exchange between supporters of senior Taliban leaders.
The Taliban denied the report.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said either Hakeemullah Mehsud or Wali ur Rehman Mehsud -- believed to be potential successors -- died in a shootout at a meeting of senior Taliban leaders in South Waziristan.
A senior Taliban commander called the reports of clashes between top Taliban leaders and a death of a potential successor false, accusing the government of dispensing propaganda.
"They want to create some sort of rift, and they want to launch a military operation in South Waziristan and use this as a pretext for such an operation," he said.
Saturday's possible shooting came after intelligence reports that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a recent drone attack.
Pakistan's foreign and interior ministers said Friday the government was still waiting to conduct DNA analysis to confirm the identity of a man killed Wednesday in an unmanned aerial vehicle strike.
Taliban officials have denied reports of Mehsud's death. Malik noted that the Taliban has not offered any voice or video evidence to prove the contrary.
"That's why I have not confirmed, because I believe something to be solid," Malik said. "And a solid thing can only be possible if you have substantive material evidence."
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Friday that the charismatic leader's death can be confirmed only after physical evidence is processed, but he added that indications are the reports are true.
"There are a lot of pointers as a result of which most people believe that Baitullah Mehsud is, indeed, dead, and his own group has announced that," Haqqani said.
If that turns out to be the case, "then that is definitely a major advance in proving Pakistan's determination and the determination of the United States to eliminate extremists and terrorists from our region," he said.
Earlier this year, the United States issued a reward of up to $5 million "for information leading to the location, arrest, and/or conviction" of Mehsud.
The suspected U.S. drone targeted the home of Mehsud's father-in-law, Mulvi Ikram ud Din, in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area, an intelligence official said.
The suspected drone fired two missiles into the residence, killing Mehsud's second wife and one other person, according to intelligence sources and relatives. The U.S. military routinely offers no comment on reported drone attacks. However, the United States is the only country operating in the region known to have the ability to launch missiles from drones, which are controlled remotely.
The strike was based on "solid intel," a Pakistani official with knowledge of intelligence matters said. Since the attack, "the Mehsud network has gone quiet, as if in shock," the official said.
But the official also noted that Mehsud "has shown up alive after previous near misses." One such near miss occurred in late June at a funeral Mehsud was attending in a Pakistani tribal area. The funeral was targeted in a drone attack, but the Pakistani Taliban leader is reported to have missed being killed by a few hours.
This time, however, "there are increasingly strong indications Mehsud is, in fact, dead," according to a U.S. counterterrorism official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
"We continue to review information as it comes in," the official said. The official said Washington is "seeking its own confirmation" of his death, adding that there may be little DNA to test in the wake of the bombing.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Department of Defense is "aware of the reports." But he said Mehsud's death would be significant.
"Anytime a vicious Taliban leader is eliminated, it makes the environment safer," Whitman said Friday.
"This is an organization that tends to be able to regenerate another leader. These terrorist organizations tend to be decentralized in the execution of their operations. I don't want to make more of it than one should of a single individual, however, this was an important Taliban leader in Pakistan, and if he is no longer able to direct operations, that is a good thing."
Mehsud and other key leaders of the Pakistani Taliban have been targeted by the ongoing Pakistani military operation in the northwestern part of the country. Pakistani aircraft and suspected U.S. drones regularly shell hideouts linked to Mehsud.
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Posted by Steve Douglass at 5:20 PM