Leader’s death is heavy blow to Taliban

Pakistan confirms Mehsud was killed

A photo from 2004 shows Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud (right) escorted by a guard as he arrived for a meeting in the South Waziristan tribal region. A photo from 2004 shows Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud (right) escorted by a guard as he arrived for a meeting in the South Waziristan tribal region. (A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)
By Nahal Toosi and Ishtiaq Mahsud
Associated Press / August 8, 2009

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ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s Taliban chief was killed by a CIA missile strike, a militant commander confirmed yesterday - a severe blow to extremists threatening the stability of this nuclear-armed nation and a possible boost to US-Pakistani cooperation in fighting insurgents who wreak havoc along the Afghan border.

Pakistani officials vowed to dismantle the rest of the network run by Baitullah Mehsud regardless of who takes over, a move seen as essential to crippling the violent Islamists behind dozens of suicide attacks and beheadings in the country.

Already, the Taliban were holding a “shura’’ council in the lawless, rugged South Waziristan tribal region to choose Mehsud’s successor, intelligence officials and militants told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. It was unclear when they might reach a decision.

Pakistan considered the Al Qaeda-linked Mehsud its primary internal threat. He was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and many other assaults. He claimed responsibility for some, including an audacious attack on a police academy in March that killed 12 people.

His death would be a victory for President Obama and a nod to the Bush administration, both of whom have relied heavily on the CIA-controlled missile strikes to take out militants in Pakistan’s wild northwest. The United States had a $5 million bounty on Mehsud, whom it considered a threat to the Afghan war effort.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration could not confirm the death, but was aware it was the growing consensus among “credible observers.’’

“If he is dead, without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result,’’ Gibbs said.

Islamabad officially protests the missile strikes, although analysts suspect the two countries coordinate on the drone-fired attacks. Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives Wednesday in his South Waziristan stronghold, his militant aide said.

“I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,’’ Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told AP.

Pakistani leaders said they were getting the same reports and were reasonably sure of their accuracy but did not have forensic evidence such as a body for confirmation. Final confirmation could take days or weeks.

A tribesman who spoke on condition his name not be used said the missile struck Mehsud’s father-in-law’s house. He said a doctor was treating the Taliban leader there for a kidney ailment. The tribesman said he attended Mehsud’s funeral.

Pakistani officials would not say they coordinated with the US on the strike, although they insist they cooperate with US and Afghan forces on border-related operations. Intelligence sharing between Washington and Islamabad has been increasing in the past year now that Pakistan has a civilian government and shown a growing willingness to battle militants in its borders.

There apparently was no official criticism or popular outcry against the missile strike that killed Mehsud, despite public fury over other US attacks.

Fueled by his alliances with Al Qaeda and other militant outfits, Mehsud rose to the peak of Pakistan’s militant pyramid thanks largely to his brutality and Pakistan’s unwillingness to take him on. A 30-something son of a potato farmer who once taught physical fitness, Mehsud was soft-spoken but brash enough to once hold a news conference.

Three Pakistani intelligence officials said the most likely successor was Mehsud deputy Hakimullah. Two other possibilities were Azmat Ullah and Waliur Rehman.