Q&A: Pakistani Taliban and their leader Mehsud

Tue Mar 31, 2009 8:01am EDT

(Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud said on Tuesday his group has carried out an attack on a police academy in the eastern city of Lahore.

Eight cadets were killed and 89 were wounded in the brazen assault on Monday that came less than a month after a dozen gunmen attacked Sri Lanka's cricket team in the city, killing six police guards and a bus driver.

Four militants were killed and three were arrested during an eight-hour long gunbattle with security forces in the police academy.

Mehsud, head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement, Pakistan, called Reuters by telephone and claimed responsibility for the attack.

Here are few facts about Mehsud and his group.

WHAT IS THE TTP?

Intelligence officials say TTP is a loose alliance of about 13 Islamist groups based in Pakistan's northwest on the Afghan border. While some of the groups are fighting for implementation of a puritanical Taliban-like order, others are involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping.

Mehsud, an al Qaeda ally based in the South Waziristan ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghan border, was declared emir, or head, of the group in 2005. That year, a Pakistani general called Mehsud "a soldier of peace" for signing a peace deal that brought a short-lived lull in the conflict in South Waziristan.

Intelligence officials say Mehsud has been behind a wave of attacks across Pakistan since the army stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque in July 2007 to crush a militant movement based there.

But it was when government officials named Mehsud as the prime suspect in the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in a suicide gun and bomb suicide in the city of Rawalpindi in December 2007 that Mehsud's notoriety rocketed.

The U.S. Central Investigation Agency also said evidence pointed to involvement of Mehsud in the attack though he has denied it.

The United States last week announced a reward of $5 million for information leading to the location or arrest of Mehsud.

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE AFGHAN TALIBAN?

The TTP has links with the Afghan Taliban and sends fighters across the border to fight Western forces.

Mehsud shrugged off the U.S. bounty on his head, saying his militants would continue their attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and could even mount attacks in the United States.

Security analysts say a recent alliance forged by Taliban commanders loyal to Mehsud and other militant commanders operating could be a move to forge unity as the United States plans to send more troops into Afghanistan.

"If Pakistan, Russia, NATO and America can join hands then why can't we?" Mehsud said when asked for the reason behind the formation of the Ittehad-e-Shura-e-Mujahideen, Union of the Consultative Council of Mujahideen.

"We will continue our activities in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan."

WHO IS BAITULLAH MEHSUD?

Mehsud comes from Shahbikhel, a sub-tribe of the Mehsud tribe. The other main tribe in Waziristan is the Wazir.

His clansmen describe him as a simple and religious man but security officials say he is shrewd and has been able to exert influence through fear. There are no known photographs or video footage of his face and he has rarely given media interviews.

Shaukat Khattak, a journalist who met Mehsud in 2005 in South Waziristan, said Mehsud was articulate and did not look like a typical Taliban, most of whom have long, shaggy hair.

He is short, round-faced with a trim black beard and in his mid-30s. He is from a humble family, most of whom are truck drivers, and left school at the age of 12.

Mehsud was actually born near Bannu, a North West Frontier Province town at the gateway to North Waziristan. He moved to the village of Shaga in South Waziristan and built a mud-walled home on the dusty land of his forefathers. One person who knows him said he is diabetic and does not sleep well because of that.

(Reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sugita Katyal)

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