A Taliban spokesman and a deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud said yesterday that he was not killed by a CIA missile strike, contradicting another aide who confirmed Mehsud’s death a day earlier.
The claims, made in calls to Pakistani and international media organizations, could undermine the growing confidence among US and Pakistani officials that Mehsud died. They also could be tactical maneuvers to prevent defections as the Taliban leadership searches for a successor to Mehsud or even to delay a decision on naming an heir.
Pakistani intelligence officials acknowledged yesterday that the missile strike said to have killed the Taliban chief was carried out with Islamabad’s help, indicating growing coordination between the two countries despite Pakistan’s official disapproval of the strikes.
Mehsud deputy, Hakimullah, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar each called reporters yesterday to say that Mehsud was alive. They pledged evidence of his continued existence would be brought forth in the coming days.
The reports of his death “are just to discourage and destroy the morale of the Taliban,” Umar said.
Umar said Mehsud was with his fighters “sound and fit,” and not even injured. He said Mehsud would not be provoked into coming out into the open so soon because that would make him a target.
Hakimullah is one of the potential successors to lead the militant group. However, intelligence agents said it appears likely that Hakimullah may be passed over for the top position in favor of another Mehsud aide, Waliur Rehman.
Asked if Mehsud could call reporters, Hakimullah said it was not possible at the moment. Asked why he did not refute the reports of Mehsud’s death earlier in the week, the militant did not answer.
Mehsud’s aide Kafayat Ullah said a day earlier that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives on Wednesday in his stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal region.
“I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,” Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah said by telephone.
A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law’s house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor, when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief’s funeral.
Pakistani and US officials said they were getting the same reports and were reasonably confident in them, but did not have forensic evidence such as a body for irrefutable confirmation.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions, was skeptical about the Taliban’s assertions Baitullah was alive, saying the claims could be part of a leadership struggle.
“If he was alive he could have spoken himself,” Shah said.
“There is, I think, a struggle going on for the leadership, and Hakimullah Mehsud is one of the contenders,” he said.
Pakistan considered the al-Qaeda-linked Mehsud its No. 1 internal threat. He was suspected in the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide attacks across Pakistan.
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