ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The deputy head of the Pakistani Taliban said he has temporarily taken over command in a move likely to fuel rifts among militant factions after the reported killing of leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Pakistani and U.S. officials are almost certain Mehsud was killed along with his wife and some guards in a strike by a CIA-operated drone aircraft on August 5 in his South Waziristan stronghold on the Afghan border.
But his aides have been insisting he is still alive.
Faqir Mohammad, deputy head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, also denied Mehsud was killed and, like other Taliban commanders, said he was sick and laying low.
“Because of the illness of the emir (leader), I am acting emir,” the BBC’s Urdu-language service quoted Mohammad as saying.
Pakistan and U.S. officials have said the Pakistani Taliban appeared to be in disarray after Mehsud’s death with reports of infighting between factions vying to take command.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik played down the importance of Mohammad’s move to take over the reins of the TTP.
“Faqir’s self-creation to be the head of the TTP shows that there is no Taliban leadership,” Malik told reporters, adding that government forces would capture all militant leaders.
Analysts say the Taliban’s reluctance to admit Mehsud’s death could be a tactic aimed at averting discord before the leadership question is settled. But Mohammad’s announcement demonstrated division in the ranks was deepening.
“The rift is now more visible,” said Rahimullah Yousufzai, a veteran journalist and expert on Afghan border affairs. “It shows that in the absence of a strong man like Baitullah, it will be very difficult for the commanders to keep the TTP intact.”
The TTP is a loose alliance of 13 groups in which Mehsud alone was estimated to be commanding from 10,000 to more than 20,000 fighters. Divisions in TTP could see the militants loyal to Mehsud subsumed by various rival commanders.
MORE FOCUS ON AFGHANISTAN?
Mehsud had long focused his attacks on the Pakistani security forces, unlike Afghan Taliban factions also based in the northwest which have concentrated on launching cross-border raids into Afghanistan.
Mehsud has been accused of a series of bomb attacks in Pakistani cities over the past couple of years, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
A splintering of the Pakistani Taliban would be a major coup for the government and would hamper the militants’ ability to mount coordinated action.
Another Mehsud aide, Wali-ur-Rehman, had earlier said he was looking after Taliban affairs, along with another commander from Waziristan, because of Mehsud’s sickness. Another commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, is also seen as a possible new leader.
Mohammad said neither Rehman nor any other commander had the right to appoint a TTP chief without consulting its 42-member shura, or leadership council.
The army has been battling Pakistani Taliban guerrillas loyal to Mehsud in different parts of the northwest for months but the United States also wants Pakistan to move against the factions that focus on battling Western forces in Afghanistan.
Yousufzai said the TTP might replace Mehsud with a strong commander from outside its ranks, maybe one more intent on fighting in Afghanistan, in order to keep the alliance intact.
Two possible candidates were Maulvi Nazir Wazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, with about 5,000 fighters each, Yousufzai said.
Separately, 58 militants surrendered in the former Taliban bastion of Swat, northwest of Islamabad, the military said.
Government forces have cleared most of the former tourist valley of Taliban in a three-month offensive, but the militants have launched several attacks in recent days.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Jeremy Laurence
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