Ex-Fighter for Taliban Dies in Strike in Pakistan
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, June 18 — A 27-year-old former Taliban fighter who recently embarrassed the Pakistani Army and became one of the country's best-known and most-wanted militants was killed in a missile strike on Thursday night, Pakistani military officials said.
Local residents said they believed that a missile fired from an American drone killed the militant, Nek Muhammad, after he spoke over a satellite phone. But Pakistani military officials denied any American involvement.
Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, said Friday that Pakistani forces had been tracking Mr. Muhammad for several days. The general declined to say exactly how Mr. Muhammad was killed, but said Pakistani helicopters and artillery were both capable of striking a compound with pinpoint accuracy. He said reports of American involvement were "absolutely absurd."
General Sultan said the killing of Mr. Muhammad was a major victory in the government's campaign against terrorism. Government officials had accused Mr. Muhammad of sheltering foreign militants, and he appeared to toy with, and embarrass, the Pakistani Army during a series of negotiations this spring.
"This sends a good message," said General Sultan, who appeared visibly pleased with the news of Mr. Muhammad's death. "The government is serious. The government means business."
The general said 60 to 70 militants, most of whom were believed to be Uzbeks, had been killed in recent fighting. About 20 Pakistani Army troops had also been killed, he said.
An anonymous caller to a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Peshawar vowed retaliatory strikes against the government. Thousands of people attended Mr. Muhammad's funeral, which was held in his nearby hometown of Kaloosha.
The former Taliban fighter, whose jet-black, shoulder-length hair and thick beard gave him the look of a revolutionary, had been in hiding since the Pakistani Army began an operation last week in the tribal areas, government officials said. Hundreds of foreign militants are believed to be hiding in the tribal areas and planning terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A series of attacks have killed 72 people in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and raised new fears that militants are recruiting new members to directly challenge the army.
Mr. Muhammad was a symbol of that defiance. He and his men were believed to have killed at least 60 soldiers and paramilitary scouts in April in battles near Wana. About 60 militants also died in the clashes.
Instead of hunting down Mr. Muhammad, as expected, the army opened negotiations with him. In late April, a Pakistani corps commander pardoned Mr. Muhammad and four other local tribesmen accused of sheltering militants in exchange for a promise that they would not carry out any more attacks.
Within minutes of that agreement, Mr. Muhammad told Pakistani journalists he was still loyal to the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and would continue waging holy war. He also denied that there were any foreigners present in the tribal areas, or that he had agreed they would register with the government.
Just how Mr. Muhammad was killed remained unclear on Friday night.
Witnesses reported hearing what they believed was a drone in the area minutes before the missile strike killed Mr. Muhammad. On Friday, an unidentified caller telephoned a Pakistani journalist with the BBC and complained that the journalists' satellite telephone conversations with Mr. Muhammad had disclosed his location.
Residents said Mr. Muhammad was sitting in a courtyard with four other men eating dinner at 10 p.m. on Thursday when the missile struck. They said it hit the middle of where Mr. Muhammad and the men were sitting, leaving a crater 6 feet by 6 feet. All five men were killed.
David Rohde reported from Rawalpindi for this article, and Mohammed Khan from Peshawar.