PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A close aide to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, believed by Pakistani officials to have been killed in a shootout with a rival, said on Monday both he and Mehsud were alive.
The comments by Hakimullah Mehsud compounded confusion that has surrounded Mehsud’s reported death in a U.S. missile attack last week.
“Both I and our amir (leader) Baitullah Mehsud are alive,” Hakimullah Mehsud told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Pakistani and U.S. officials say they are quite certain that Baitullah, al Qaeda cohort, was killed in the missile strike delivered by a drone on his father-in-law’s house in the South Waziristan tribal region last Wednesday.
Baitullah’s second wife, whom he married late last year, perished in the attack.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Saturday that Hakimullah had been involved in a shootout with a rival for the Taliban leadership, Wali-ur-Rehman, and that one of them was reportedly killed. Pakistani intelligence officials and media reported that Hakimullah was most probably dead.
Wali-ur-Rehman, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location to a Reuters reporter on Sunday, also denied that any tribal council meeting, or shura, had taken place to decide on a successor to Baitullah.
Hakimullah said there had been no shura as Baitullah was alive.
“I have proven the government’s claim of my death wrong and I challenge the government to prove the death of our amir. Baitullah Mehsud is alive, safe and sound,” he said.
Asked whether he could provide evidence to prove Baitullah was alive, Hakimulllah said: “Let the interior minister prove he is dead.”
Independent verification of the claims and counter-claims is extremely difficult as the Mehsud lands where the U.S. missile struck the house of Baitullah’s father-in-law are remote and inaccessible.
Reporting by Alamgir Bitani, writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Jason Subler and Ron Popeski