PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The wife of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud died in a suspected U.S. missile strike on Wednesday, and Pakistani intelligence officials were checking whether Mehsud was among those killed.
A relative of Mehsud’s dead wife said the Taliban leader was not present when the missiles struck a house belonging to his father-in-law in Makeen, a remote village in the South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
The missiles were believed to have been fired by a pilotless drone aircraft.
“Baitullah is safe and alive,” Iqbal Mehsud, a cousin of the dead woman, told Reuters by telephone. But rumors that Mehsud had been wounded or killed continued to swirl.
The almost inaccessible village of Makeen is in the heart of Mehsud lands in South Waziristan and thousands of fighters protect the Taliban chieftain’s mountainous redoubt.
The United States has placed a $5 million reward on the head of Mehsud, an ally of al Qaeda widely regarded in Pakistan as Public Enemy No. 1.
Shortly before 1 a.m. (1900 GMT Tuesday), two missiles hit the sprawling, high-walled compound of Ikramuddin Mehsud, a cleric whose daughter married Baitullah Mehsud last November.
At least two militants were killed in the attack, according to a security official in Waziristan.
Relatives confirmed Mehsud’s wife was also killed, and said four children from the extended family living in the house were among the wounded.
Ikramuddin’s daughter was Mehsud’s second wife. Mehsud has no children by his first wife. Under Islamic custom, a man can have four wives.
Airpower is a contentious issue in the conflict raging in the ethnic Pashtun tribal lands that straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the guerrillas melt into the population and civilian deaths can harden support for the Taliban.
U.S. missile attacks on Mehsud territory in South Waziristan became more frequent after the Pakistan government ordered a military offensive against him in June.
Pakistan has also bombarded Mehsud’s stronghold with air raids and artillery.
The army has sealed roads around Mehsud territory and villagers have fled the area but doubts have grown about whether the army intends to launch a full-blown assault.
Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007, and his fighters have been behind a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
He is accused of being behind the assassination in December 2007 of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He denies this.
U.S. drone attacks had hitherto mostly targeted lands held by Taliban leaders from the Wazir tribe, as their territory borders Afghanistan and they have been more involved in the Afghan insurgency.
South Waziristan’s serrated mountain ridges, dried out river beds and gullies and low chaparral provide perfect terrain for guerrillas, and Mehsud has a force of battle-hardened fighters variously estimated at between 10,000 and more than 20,000.
Analysts believe the army won’t risk opening another front until it has finished a campaign against the Taliban in the Swat valley, far to the east and closer to the capital, Islamabad.
The military said on Wednesday that eight militants were killed in Swat and neighboring districts. More than 1,800 militants have been killed since the Swat campaign began in late April, according to the military, but no independent casualty estimates are available.
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Jon Boyle