DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban militants have chosen a new deputy commander to replace their second-in-command who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the North Waziristan region, sources in the militant group said on Thursday.
Wali-ur-Rehman was killed in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan, on northwest Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, on Wednesday, Pakistani security officials and militants said.
A Pakistani Taliban committee met late on Wednesday to choose a deputy after he was buried in a low-key ceremony, three Taliban members told Reuters.
The new number two, Khan Said, 38, had served as Wali-ur-Rehman’s deputy. He was involved in planning a 2011 attack on a Pakistani navy base in Karachi in which 18 people were killed and a 2012 jail break in which nearly 400 militant inmates escaped, the members said.
“There was absolute consensus over Khan Said,” one Pakistani Taliban member said.
Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban have launched devastating attacks against the Pakistani military and civilians. It is a separate entity to the Afghan Taliban, though allied with them.
Wednesday’s drone strike, which killed six other people, was the first in Pakistan since a May 11 election in which strikes by the unmanned U.S. aircraft became a major issue.
It was also the first reported U.S. drone strike since President Barack Obama announced last week that the United States was scaling back the drone program.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry condemned the strike, but a Taliban spokesman, who confirmed Wali-ur-Rehman’s death late on Thursday, said the militant group blamed Islamabad for it.
“We hold the government of Pakistan responsible for this killing,” Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters. “We will teach a lesson to Pakistan and United States for depriving us of our beloved leader.”
Taliban sources said that three other senior militant commanders were also killed in the drone attack.
While Wali-ur-Rehman’s death is a major blow for the militants, it could be also viewed as a setback for incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to end violence.
He criticized drone strikes during the election campaign, describing them at one point as a “challenge” to Pakistan’s sovereignty. Sharif also offered to hold talks with the militants, something that now looked less likely, according to one senior security official.
“Wali-ur-Rehman was a serious and mature man, his death could hurt prospects for an expected peace initiative considered by the new government,” the official told Reuters.
Wali-ur-Rehman had been tipped to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as leader of the Pakistan Taliban and had been viewed as someone less hostile to the Pakistani military than some other top operatives.
However, many observers said any meaningful settlement with the Taliban was unlikely in any case given Sharif’s condition that the starting point for talks be respect for the country’s democratic order and institutions.
The White House did not confirm the killing, in line with its practice not to discuss drone strikes.
But its spokesman Jay Carney said Wali-ur-Rehman “has participated in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO personnel and horrific attacks against Pakistani civilians and soldiers”.
Drones armed with missiles have carried out numerous strikes against militants in the North Waziristan Pashtun tribal region over the past seven years, sometimes with heavy civilian casualties.
A U.S. drone killed Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in 2009. There had been several reports that successor Hakimullah Mehsud was killed the same way but they turned out to be false.
North Waziristan has long been a stronghold of militants including Afghan Taliban and their al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban allies.
Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Alison Williams