Chief of Pakistani Taliban believed alive after missile strike

US spy aircraft target meeting of commanders

By Chris Brummitt
Associated Press / January 15, 2010

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ISLAMABAD - The leader of the Pakistani Taliban apparently was targeted in a US missile strike on a meeting of militant commanders close to the Afghan border yesterday, but he escaped unhurt, Pakistani officials and militants said. Twelve insurgents were believed killed.

The death of Hakimullah Mehsud would be a major victory for both for Washington and Islamabad in their fight against Islamist militants. Mehsud appeared on a video released last week next to the Jordanian militant who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide attack in December in Afghanistan.

Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban movement, which is linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan, has also claimed responsibility for scores of bloody suicide bombings in Pakistan in recent months against military, civilian, and government targets.

The US missile strike was the eighth such attack in two weeks in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, an unprecedented volley of drone attacks since the CIA-led program began in earnest two years ago. The surge signals the Obama administration’s reliance on the tactic despite official protest from Islamabad.

One or more unmanned US spy planes fired at least two missiles into a large complex that had been used as a religious school in the Pasalkot area close to the border with South Waziristan soon after dawn, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The dead militants included two foreigners, while at least eight others were wounded, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said that he had no information on the strike but that Mehsud’s death would be a good thing. America does not acknowledge being behind the program, and its officials rarely talk about it directly.

“He either is, or was, a very bad person,’’ Holbrooke told foreign correspondents in Islamabad.

Three Pakistani intelligence officials and four militants said Mehsud was not among the dead.

He was expected at the meeting, but authorities were still trying to determine whether he made it to the session, the officials said. They cited wireless communications intercepts tracking Mehsud’s movements.

The militants said Mehsud was alive, safe, and traveling. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and for personal security reasons.

Confirming the casualties in US missile strikes is very difficult and often takes weeks. Pakistani officials are believed to provide some of the intelligence used in the strikes, but it is unclear whether they have access to the high definition images captured by the drones.

Mehsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in August in South Waziristan.

Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, has a reputation as a ruthless militant. He has taken responsibility for brazen strikes on Pakistani civilians and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team last year.