ISLAMABAD, Aug 7 – Pakistan said Friday it believed that wanted Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone attack, which if confirmed would score a coup in the US-led fight against Islamist militants.
The death of the notorious commander could deal a heavy blow to the sizeable Taliban movement commanded by Mehsud, who has a five-million-dollar US bounty on his head after Washington branded him "a key Al-Qaeda facilitator."
US and Pakistani officials accused Mehsud of masterminding the 2007 assassination of ex-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and he has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people in bomb attacks over two years.
Senior officials in Pakistan’s powerful security establishment who supervise operations in Mehsud’s Waziristan stronghold said the warlord was dead, but the government said it was seeking verification.
"According to my intelligence this news is correct, but we are investigating," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters. "To be 100 percent sure, we are going for ground verification," he added.
"Information is coming from that area that he is dead," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik. "I am unable to confirm unless I have solid evidence," the cabinet minister added.
Tribesmen said on condition of anonymity that Mehsud was killed with his wife when a US drone fired two missiles into a family home in the Laddah area of South Waziristan on Wednesday. A kinsman had initially said he was "safe".
The US Central Intelligence Agency, with the tacit cooperation of Islamabad, has carried out dozens of attacks in Pakistan using unmanned Predator and Reaper drones over the past year, but declines to discuss the strikes publicly.
Islamabad and Washington have called liquidating Mehsud a strategic aim in the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists whom the United States has accused of posing an existential threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"I warn Baitullah Mehsud’s group to end terrorism. It is a targeted operation against Baitullah Mehsud and it will continue until the group is eliminated," Malik added.
In Washington, a US official said Thursday there was "some reason to believe Mehsud may be dead but it cannot be confirmed at this time for certain".
Islamabad publicly opposes suspected US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace, but has posted a bounty of 615,000 dollars for Mehsud and is keen to see him dead.
Mehsud has reportedly narrowly escaped previous attacks.
"So far there is no report which confirms that the dead include Baitullah Mehsud. We have sent teams to investigate," Jamal Azmat Khattak, the assistant political agent in Laddah, told AFP.
Taliban commanders have neither confirmed nor denied Mehsud’s demise. But top militants in his umbrella group Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) were gathering in his South Waziristan stronghold on Friday ahead of an expected announcement.
"An important announcement is expected at the end of the meeting," said one Taliban commander.
Analysts said that Mehsud’s death, if confirmed, would deal a heavy blow to the organisation increasingly seen as the bloodiest orchestrator of extremist bombings that have killed about 2,000 people in Pakistan over two years.
"It will trigger a leadership crisis, they will find it very difficult to fill the vacuum.
There cannot be a bigger loss for TTP than losing Mehsud," a Pakistani expert on tribal affairs, Rahimullah Yusufzai, told AFP.
Several names are touted as his possible successor but none match his stature.
The US government alleges Islamist fighters hide out in the Pakistan mountains near the Afghan border, plotting attacks on Western targets and crossing the porous frontier to attack foreign troops based in Afghanistan.
Washington has put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda and has ordered an extra 21,000 troops to Afghanistan in a bid to stabilise the neighbouring country for elections this month.