ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani government has received reports that shooting broke out between two rivals for the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, and one of them may have been killed, the interior minister said Saturday.
Pakistani news channels were carrying unconfirmed reports that Hakimullah Mehsud, one of the movement’s most powerful commanders, had been killed at a shura, or council meeting, held to decide who would succeed slain leader Baitullah Mehsud.
“The infighting was between Wali-ur-Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters. “We have information that one of them has been killed. Who was killed we will be able to say later after confirming.”
A Taliban official in South Waziristan, where the meeting took place, told Reuters the government had fabricated reports of fighting between the different factions.
Noor Said, who had been a deputy spokesman under Baitullah, said: “There was no fighting in the shura. Both Wali-ur-Rehman and Hakimullah are safe and sound.”
Western governments with troops in Afghanistan are watching to see if any new Pakistani Taliban leader would shift focus from fighting the Pakistani government and put the movement’s weight behind the Afghan insurgency led by Mullah Mohammad Omar.
An intelligence officer in South Waziristan said he had reports that Hakimullah Mehsud died in the shooting after heated exchanges between the rivals at the meeting held around 4:30 p.m.(6:30 a.m. EDT).
“According to reports Wali-ur-Rehman fired and killed Hakimullah Mehsud,” the official said.
State-run Pakistan Television (PTV) said there were reports that both leaders might have been killed in a shoot-out.
The shura was called in Taliban-controlled territory in Waziristan, a northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Earlier in the day Hakimullah Mehsud had telephoned journalists to deny that Baitullah Mehsud had been killed in a missile strike by U.S. drone aircraft Wednesday.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on Friday the government was “pretty certain” that Mehsud perished in the missile blitz Wednesday that also killed his second wife, a brother, seven bodyguards and destroyed his car.
Some analysts had anticipated the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership would be split over who should become the next chief and the denial aimed to buy time until a new leader was chosen.
Hakimullah, who controls fighters in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal regions, is regarded as one of the leading contenders to replace Baitullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Wali-ur-Rehman is another shura member and a former spokesman for Baitullah.
Qureshi had anticipated the death of Mehsud would leave a void in the Taliban movement that could lead to divisions.
“With him gone, I think there is going to be an internal struggle and disarray in their ranks, I think it will set in demobilization. It is a great success for the forces that are fighting extremism and terrorism in Pakistan,” Qureshi told BBC radio late Friday.
Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Robert Woodward