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By Simon Cameron-Moore
ISLAMABAD, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban militants confirmed for the first time on Tuesday that their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, has been killed, the BBC reported.
Pakistani and U.S. officials have insisted all along that Mehsud was killed in a U.S. missile strike in his South Waziristan stronghold near the Afghan border on Aug. 5, but the Taliban have been denying it.
The BBC said two Taliban commanders loyal to Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman, had confirmed that Baitullah Mehsud had been killed.
A Taliban commander announced on Saturday that Hakimullah Mehsud, a young fighter from the same tribe as Baitullah Mehsud with a reputation for ferocity, was the movement’s new top gun because Baitullah Mehsud was too ill to command.
But the naming of a new leader has failed to dispel strong suspicions that the Pakistani Taliban are riven by factional rivalry following Baitullah Mehsud’s death.
WHO ARE THE PAKISTANI TALIBAN?
Baitullah declared himself the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, grouping 13 main factions, in late 2007.
Analysts saw the earlier Taliban denials that Mehsud was dead as an attempt to hide divisions over who should take charge of the militant alliance.
The Pakistani Taliban are allies of al Qaeda and take guidance from Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, but fight on a different front.
They are Pakistan’s enemy first, though their fighters also join in Omar’s Afghan insurgency.
The Pakistani Taliban’s aggression and advances since late 2007 fuelled increasing alarm over the stability of Pakistan and the security of its nuclear weapons.
WHY DOES IT MATTER WHO LEADS THE PAKISTANI TALIBAN?
A new leader could determine a new strategy. He could either follow Baitullah’s path, intensifying attacks inside Pakistan.
Or he could wind down operations in Pakistan, and send more fighters across the border to fight Western troops and weaken the resolve of allies fighting with the United States in Afghanistan.
The best result for Pakistan and the West would be if the Pakistani Taliban failed to find a leader of Baitullah’s authority, and the movement lost coherence.
Conversely, Omar could instil unity, possibly by working through a faction led by veteran Afghan guerrilla commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, based in the southeastern Afghan province of Khost and Pakistan’s North Waziristan. This could determine the movement’s direction.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT HAKIMULLAH?
According to the Center for American Progress, Hakimullah commands about 8,000 fighters in the Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber ethnic Pashtun regions west of Peshawar, the main city in northwest Pakistan.
He works with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group closely linked to al Qaeda, with roots in central Punjab province.
Hakimullah claimed responsibility for a daring suicide attack on Peshawar’s Pearl Continental hotel in June. His fighters ambush trucks taking supplies through the Khyber Pass to Afghan government and Western forces across the border.
Pakistan’s interior minister said Hakimullah was killed in a shootout with Wali-ur-Rehman, one of Baitullah Mehsud’s most trusted aides, at a meeting in South Waziristan to decide a new leader just days after the missile strike killed Baitullah.
Both Rehman and Hakimullah subsequently rang a Reuters journalist, who knew their voices, to say that was not true.
WHY ARE THERE STILL DOUBTS OVER HAKIMULLAH‘S SUCCESSION?
Intelligence officials insist Hakimullah is dead.
They say journalists were duped, and a new Taliban spokesman has been chosen as a firewall against media access. In the circumstances, Hakimullah will have to demonstrate proof of life to remove those doubts.
The announcement on Aug. 22 of Hakimullah’s succession was made by Faqir Mohammad. He was Baitullah’s deputy and is based in the Bajaur region, at the opposite end of the tribal belt from far-flung South Waziristan.
The same day, rival commander Rehman reportedly met journalists in South Waziristan and said the leadership would only be decided in a few more days. Somewhat strangely, Faqir Mohammad had put himself up as a stop-gap leader just two days earlier. (Editing by Robert Birsel)