PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban fighters gathered on Saturday for the funeral of their leader who was killed by a U.S. drone aircraft while some Pakistani politicians denounced the attack and called for the cutting of U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan.
Pakistani security officials said Hakimullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, and three others were killed on Friday in the militant stronghold of Miranshah in northwest Pakistan.
Mehsud was killed when his vehicle was hit after he attended a meeting of Taliban leaders, a Pakistani Taliban fighter said. His bodyguard and driver were also killed.
Mehsud took over as leader of the Pakistani Taliban in 2009. The group’s two previous leaders were killed in attacks by U.S. missile-firing drone aircraft.
The Pakistani Taliban are an umbrella group of militant factions allied with the Afghan Taliban and battling the Pakistani state in the hope of imposing Islamist rule.
They have killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and numerous members of the security forces. They claimed the killing of an army general in September.
Mehsud has been reported killed several times before only to emerge alive later. But a senior Pakistani Taliban commander confirmed the killing on Friday and a fighter said on Saturday his body had been recovered from his destroyed vehicle, and was “damaged but recognizable”.
In Washington, two U.S. officials also confirmed Mehsud’s death in a CIA drone strike. A White House spokeswoman said he was not in a position to confirm the report but if true, it would be a serious loss for the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan’s new government had promised to try to stop the violence through peace talks with the Taliban and reacted angrily to the strike.
“It is an attempt by the U.S. to sabotage peace talks,” said Shah Farman, a spokesman for the government of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
He said provincial legislators would pass a resolution on Monday to cut NATO supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan. A main one passes through the nearby Khyber Pass.
The supply lines through U.S. ally Pakistan have been crucial since the latest Afghan war began in 2001 and remain vital as the U.S. and other Western forces prepare to withdraw by the end of next year.
On Friday, before the strike, the Pakistani Taliban said talks with the government had not begun.
Residents of Miranshah, the capital of the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, said Pakistani Taliban fighters were converging on the town for Mehsud’s funeral and firing furiously at drones buzzing high in the sky.
About eight drones were seen overhead as well as a larger aircraft that seemed to be a aeroplane plane or drone that residents said they had not seen before.
“We thought it is a C130 aircraft but it was a special spy plane, bigger in size,” resident Farhad Khan said by telephone from Miranshah.
“The militants fired from their anti-aircraft guns to hit it but couldn‘t.”
Shops and markets were open in the town. Residents said they were worried about a possible army offensive, but not Taliban reprisals. They expected the militants to launch attacks in Pakistani cities instead.
“People here are not worried about any reaction as we feel the militants will show their reaction in major cities like they usually do,” said resident Assadullah Dawar said.
In May, Mehsud’s deputy was killed by drone nearby. Last month, one of his top deputies was captured in Afghanistan.
A Pakistani Taliban leader said commanders were debating who their next leader would be. A favored option was 35-year-old Hafiz Saeed Khan, a cleric and Taliban chief in the Orakzai region, he said.
Khan studied in a madrassa in Karachi and led a recent offensive in the Tirah Valley, in northwest Pakistan, he said.
“He well regarded in the Taliban leadership and fighters and is known for his expertise in war and making better fighting plans,” the militant leader said.
The leader said two other militants had been discussed as possible leaders, one the ruthless commander for the Swat Valley, Maulana Fazlullah, whose men shot and wounded schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai last year.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel