August 7, 2009 / 7:47 AM / in 9 years

Pakistan says "pretty certain" Taliban chief is dead

* Pakistani intelligence agent says Mehsud buried

* His elimination would be big setback for Pakistan Taliban

* Potential successors named



(Adds Qureshi, White House spokesman)

By Kamran Haider

ISLAMABAD, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Pakistan is "pretty certain" Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, was killed with his wife and guards in a missile attack two days ago, the foreign minister said on Friday.

An intelligence officer in South Waziristan told Reuters that Mehsud’s funeral had already taken place, while Pakistani media cited their own security sources, saying Mehsud was dead.

"He was killed with his wife and he was buried in Nargosey," the officer said, referring to a tiny settlement about 1 km (half a mile), from the site of the attack, believed to have been carried out by a pilotless U.S. drone aircraft.

Diplomats in Islamabad say Mehsud’s death would mark a major coup for Pakistan, but many doubt it will help Western troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Most of his focus has been on attacking Pakistan’s government and security forces.

"It is pretty certain now that he is dead. Various government agencies have reported so, his own followers have said so, there are people who have been to the funeral and are witness to the burial," Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told BBC radio on Friday.

"It is a significant development. He was the principal personality leading the Taliban movement in Pakistan.

"With him gone, I think there is going to be an internal struggle and disarray in their ranks, I think it will set in demobilisation. It is a great success for the forces that are fighting extremism and terrorism in Pakistan," Qureshi said.

An official who requested anonymity went further.

"It’s 100 percent certain now," a senior member of the Pakistan government told Reuters, explaining that the intelligence services had obtained confirmation of Mehsud’s death from family members.

But Pakistani officials say they lack physical evidence of Mehsud’s death as it was impossible to enter the Taliban controlled area in the tribal lands of South Waziristan.

People were mourning in the settlement close to Makeen village, where Mehsud was tracked and targeted, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters.

He said intelligence suggested Taliban leaders were meeting somewhere in South Waziristan to decide on Mehsud’s successor.

The missile attack killed Mehsud’s brother and seven bodyguards as well as his wife, Malik added. The wife’s death had been confirmed hours after the attack on Wednesday that targeted her father’s house.

A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban said their struggle would be unaffected by Mehsud’s reported death.

"The Taliban’s jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan will not be affected if a Pakistani Taliban leader is killed on the other side," Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said by telephone from an undisclosed location.



U.S. MISSILE ATTACKS

Taliban leaders presumed dead have sometimes resurfaced later and there were reports from other media quoting Taliban sources saying Mehsud was wounded and others saying he was dead.

If Mehsud was killed, regular Pakistani Taliban spokesmen were unlikely to confirm it until a new leader was chosen.

Qureshi said Mehsud would be hard to replace.

"He had popularity which no other Taliban leader enjoys, he had quite a firm grip on various factions and there is no other personality who could replace him," Qureshi told the BBC.

Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007 and his fighters have staged a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.

He is accused of being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, a charge he has denied. Conspiracy theories abound over who killed the former prime minister.

In the United States, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Washington could not confirm Mehsud had been killed, but added: "There seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers that he is indeed dead."

U.S. missile attacks on Mehsud territory in South Waziristan became more frequent after Pakistan ordered a military offensive against him in June.

Neither the Pakistani nor U.S. government confirms such attacks because of sensitivities over violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty.

The names that have surfaced as the most likely successors to Mehsud included Hakimullah Mehsud, Maulana Azmatullah and Wali-ur-Rehman, and Qari Hussein.

Hakimullah Mehsud commands Taliban militants in three tribal regions of Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram and is said to be an important leader in the Taliban hierarchy.

Like Baitullah, Azmatullah also hails from the Shahbikhel — a sub-tribe of the Mehsuds. He is an important commander and a member of the Taliban shura. Wali-ur-Rehman is another shura member and a former spokesman for Baitullah.

Qari Hussain is regarded as the main overseer of the suicide bomb campaign and other high profile attacks inside Pakistan.

Hussain belongs to the Mehsud tribe but he is also a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group based in the central province of Punjab that forged ties with al Qaeda well before the Sept. 11. 2001 attacks on the United States. (Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Paul Eckert in Washington, Alamgir Bitani in Peshawar and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Charles Dick)







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