Dead or alive? Confusion over Taliban chief

Posted in Terrorism , Pakistan | 11-Aug-09 | Source: The Independent

May 2008: Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud speaking to reporters in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region

Pakistan's Taliban chief has been killed in a CIA missile strike and his body buried, three intelligence officials said today.

The Pakistani officials said Baitullah Mehsud, who led a campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations against the government, was killed in Wednesday's CIA missile attack on the home of his father-in-law.

But Pakistan's foreign minister says he has received intelligence information that Mehsud was killed, but that authorities were heading to the area for verification.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in Islamabad that "to be 100 per cent sure, we are going for ground verification."

The three officials said Mehsud had been buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan. But one said no intelligence agent had actually seen his body as the area was under Taliban control.

Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik said "there is no confirmation to his death as far as the evidence is concerned. I repeat again, yes, the information is pouring from that area that he is dead".

Mehsud had al-Qa'ida connections and had been suspected of involvement in the killing of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan viewed him as its top internal threat and has been preparing an offensive against him. The US saw him as a danger to the war effort in Afghanistan, largely because of the threat he was believed to pose to nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The missile strike hit the home of Mehsud's father-in-law in South Waziristan early on Wednesday. Intelligence officials said Mehsud's second wife was among at least two people killed. Mehsud's associates had claimed he was not among the dead.

For years, the US had considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al Qaida, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

But that view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud's power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilise the US ally and threaten the entire region.

In March, the US State Department authorised a reward of up to £3 million for the militant chief and increasingly, American missiles fired by unmanned drones have focused on Mehsud-related targets.

Mehsud was not that prominent a militant when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, according to Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions.

A February 2005 peace deal with Mehsud appeared to give him room to consolidate and boost his troop strength tremendously, and within months dozens of pro-government tribal elders in the region were gunned down on his command.

In December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan's Taliban movement. Under Mehsud's guidance, the group has killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks. He was believed to have as many as 20,000 fighters at his beck and call, among them a steady supply of suicide bombers.

Analysts said the reason for Mehsud's rise in the militant ranks was his alliances with al Qaida and other violent extremist groups.

US intelligence had said al Qaida had set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud's South Waziristan stronghold and the neighbouring North Waziristan tribal area.

Mehsud had no record of attacking targets in the West, although he had threatened to attack Washington.

However, he was suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain and Pakistan's former government and the CIA named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of Ms Bhutto.