ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The new chief of Pakistani Taliban militants who U.S. and Pakistani officials said might be dead has surfaced to meet journalists in his stronghold of South Waziristan.
Hakimullah Mehsud, who became Pakistani Taliban chief after his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. missile strike in early August, looked healthy in pictures broadcast by Pakistan's Dawn Television on Monday.
Sailab Mehsud, one of the journalists who met the militant chief on Sunday, said Hakimullah had vowed revenge for Baitullah's killing.
Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials had said they believed that Hakimullah might have been killed in a firefight with a rival faction led by commander Wali-ur-Rehman weeks ago in a dispute about who should take over from Baitullah.
Hakimullah met a small group of journalists with Rehman in Sararogha, a militant base in South Waziristan, and denied differences over the Taliban leadership.
"Wali-ur-Rehman is sitting beside me and the only difference between us was that he was asking me to become Taliban leader and he was insisting on me taking charge," Hakimullah said.
Security agents say Hakimullah is even more aggressive than Baitullah.
But he looked relaxed and a little fatter than when a group of reporters last met him late last year. He sat on the ground under a sunny sky with other Taliban commanders as armed guards stood nearby.
The reporter said Hakimullah introduced another man with him as Qari Zafar, who has a $5 million U.S. reward on his head for his suspected involvement in a bomb attack on the U.S. consulate in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.
The Taliban leadership's appearance before the media came as the Pakistani army is preparing to launch an offensive against the militants in their South Waziristan heartland.
The government ordered the army to go after Baitullah Mehsud and his men in South Waziristan in June, after a string of bomb attacks across the country.
The security forces have been launching air and artillery strikes, while moving in troops, blockading the region and trying to split off factions after Baitullah's death.
There had been a relative lull in violence after Mehsud's death but militant attacks have picked up in recent weeks.
A suicide bomber attacked an office of the U.N. World Food Programme in Islamabad on Monday killing five people, including a foreign member of staff, officials said.
An analyst said Hakimullah's appearance with other militant leaders showed that the Taliban were still a major threat.
"Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman are a formidable combination," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and expert on militant affairs.
"It shows they will resist any attack by the security forces although they will eventually retreat and resort to guerrilla warfare," he said.
Two Pakistani army divisions, or up to 28,000 soldiers, were in place preparing to take on an estimated 10,000 hardcore Taliban in South Waziristan, an army spokesman said on the weekend.
He declined to say when a ground offensive would be launched.
Analysts say fighting would be intense against the tough militants, including up to 1,000 Uzbeks, in the Taliban's main stronghold, and the army could expect heavy casualties.
Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Sugita Katyal