ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan said on Wednesday it had information suggesting Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud had died of wounds inflicted in a U.S. drone aircraft attack in January.
But in a reminder of the danger posed by the militants, even if, as looks increasingly likely, their leader is dead, a suicide car-bomber killed 19 people in the Khyber region on the Afghan border.
Eleven policeman, a soldier and seven civilians were killed when the bomber rammed his vehicle into a police patrol, said regional government official Rehan Khattak.
The bomber struck in Jamrud town, on the road leading through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border. Television showed a burned-out car on a blood-soaked street blocking trucks.
Speculation has swirled over the Taliban leader’s fate since January 14 when security officials said a missile-firing U.S. drone had targeted him. A drone was believed to have attacked him again three days later, officials said.
“I have credible information that he’s dead,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.
Those saying the militant commander was alive should prove it, said the minister, who mistakenly said in August Mehsud had been killed in a Taliban power struggle.
The army, which has a limited presence in large parts of the mountainous, ethnic Pashtun border lands, said it could not confirm Mehsud’s death.
Two Taliban officials, including a senior commander, called Reuters earlier in the day to deny that Mehsud had died.
Rumors about his fate intensified on Tuesday when another Taliban official, requesting anonymity, told journalists the leader had died of wounds while being taken to Karachi.
The death of Mehsud, notorious for his ferocity, could temporarily disrupt the Taliban campaign of bomb attacks.
The Pakistani Taliban, allies of the Afghan Taliban, have lost much ground in military offensives over the past year. Mehsud’s predecessor was killed in a drone strike in August.
But the Taliban are part of a network that includes groups from Punjab province and has a presence in most parts of the country. That network remains intact.
The U.S. drone strikes aimed at Mehsud last month came after a video emerged showing him with a Jordanian double agent bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan on December 30.
In Washington, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said on Tuesday he could not confirm Mehsud’s death but it was up to the Taliban to prove he was alive.
One of the two Taliban officials who denied he was dead was Noor Jamal, a little-known commander Pakistani newspapers said could succeed Mehsud.
“Hakimullah was neither killed nor I have been appointed acting amir (chief) of the Taliban,” Jamal, who is also known as Toofan, which means “strong” in Urdu, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Wali-ur-Rehman, a Taliban commander who is in charge of militants in their South Waziristan bastion, is also considered a possible successor to Mehsud.
Separately, a Pakistani military helicopter gunship crashed in another part of Khyber, where security forces are fighting militants, killing the two crew, the military said.
Militants later opened fire on an army rescue party, killing a senior officer and wounding two men, a security official said.
The cause of the crash was believed to have been bad weather, a military official said.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Shinwari, Kamran Haider and Alamgir Bitani; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence