ISLAMABAD Pakistani intelligence officials said on Thursday they believed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was alive, contradicting earlier comments that he was killed in a CIA-operated drone aircraft strike.
Washington, while cautious about making pronouncements about Mehsud's fate, said it was clear he was no longer "operational" or in charge of the group.
Mehsud was widely believed to have been killed in the Taliban bastion of South Waziristan near the Afghan border in January.
A Pakistani intelligence official said it was now believed that Mehsud had survived the attack. "Yes, he is alive," a senior intelligence official told Reuters.
A second Pakistani intelligence official said he also believed that Mehsud survived the missile strike, though there was no hard evidence to confirm it.
"Initially, our intelligence in the field suggested that he was killed from the wounds he sustained in the strike but we have made checks and our intelligence has now concluded that he was wounded, not dead. It's all based on intelligence."
U.S. officials declined to say whether they believed Mehsud was alive or dead, but Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said: "I certainly have seen no evidence that the person you speak of is operational today or is executing or exerting authority over the Pakistan Taliban as he once did."
"So I don't know if that reflects him being alive or dead, but he clearly is not running the Pakistani Taliban anymore," Morrell told reporters at the Pentagon.
If it is confirmed that Mehsud is alive, it would be a blow for the CIA, which had intensified pilotless drone attacks after Mehsud appeared in a video with a Jordanian double agent who later killed seven CIA employees in a suicide attack in eastern Afghanistan on December 30.
NO POLICY CHANGES EXPECTED
Whatever Mehsud's fate, analysts don't expect any change in the policies of the al Qaeda-backed Taliban, who are waging a bloody campaign to topple Pakistan's U.S.-backed government.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in February that he had "credible information" that Mehsud was dead.
"This confusion goes in favor of the Taliban as it embarrasses the government," Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Taliban and tribal affairs said.
"It shows that there is lack of real intelligence and there are still areas which are still not under the control of the government."
Taliban officials have also said conflicting things about the fate of Mehsud on different occasions.
A Taliban official in February told journalists that Mehsud had died of his wounds while being taken to the city of Karachi. But Taliban main spokesman Azam Tariq denied that.
Yusufzai said Mehsud might be maintaining a low profile to avoid risk of being targeted again.
The Taliban suffered a series of setbacks over the past year during Pakistani army offensives in their strongholds, including South Waziristan, which killed hundreds of militants and destroyed their bases.
The first intelligence official said Hakimullah had become less effective in the hierarchy of the Pakistani Taliban, weakened by a power struggle. His movement has been restricted by fears of being attacked again.
Analysts say Wali-ur-Rehman, the main Taliban commander in South Waziristan, and Qari Hussain, known as the master mentor of Taliban suicide bombers, have become the most powerful Taliban leaders.
"He (Mehsud) is alive but has virtually been isolated by his colleagues," said the first intelligence official.
(Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani and Adam Entous in Washington; Editing by Michael Georgy)