The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, the militant movement that poses the gravest security threat to the country, is believed to have been killed by a US drone strike, four Pakistani intelligence officials said on Sunday.
The officials said they intercepted wireless radio chatter between Taliban fighters detailing how Hakimullah Mehsud was killed while traveling in a convoy to a meeting in the North Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border.
A senior military official said there was no official confirmation that Hakimullah had been killed. The Pakistani Taliban issued a denial.
If Hakimullah did die, it could ease pressure on security forces, who have struggled to weaken the group, which is close to al-Qaeda and has been blamed for many suicide bombings.
However, it might not ease violence in the long-term in Pakistan, which is seen as critical for US efforts to fight global militancy, most crucially in Afghanistan.
The death of Hakimullah’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in a drone strike in 2009 raised false hopes that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could be broken.
“Six to seven TTP members were talking to each other through wireless radio in the conversations we heard, talking about Hakimullah Mehsud being hit by a drone when he was heading to a meeting at a spot near Miranshah,” one of the intelligence officials said.
The Pakistani Taliban said Hakimullah was still alive, but the denial was far less assertive than one issued in 2010 after media reports said he had been killed in a drone strike.
“There is no truth in reports about his death. However, he is a human being and can die any time. He is a holy warrior and we will wish him martyrdom,” TTP spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said.
“We will continue jihad if Hakimullah is alive or dead. There are so many lions in this jungle and one lion will replace another one to continue this noble mission,” he added.
The TTP launched an insurgency in 2007 after the military began a major crackdown on militants.
More recently, senior Taliban commanders have said the umbrella group has started exploratory peace talks with the government, but it is not clear if all factions are on board.
Hakimullah was not only in danger of being killed by the drone campaign that US President Barack Obama has escalated, or by Pakistani military operations. He and his powerful deputy, Wali-ur-Rehman, were at each other’s throats and hostilities were close to open warfare, Taliban sources say.
Any division within the TTP could hinder the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda’s struggle in Afghanistan against the US and its allies, making it tougher to recruit young fighters and disrupting safe havens in Pakistan that Washington says are used by the Afghan militants.