, Pakistan, Aug 26 – Pakistan’s new Taliban leader is threatening to avenge a US missile strike that killed his predecessor, but analysts said Wednesday the extremist outfit has been greatly weakened.
Pakistani and US officials have been saying for weeks that Baitullah Mehsud was killed when a missile from a US drone aircraft hit his father-in-law’s home on August 5, but Taliban officials insisted the feared warlord was simply ill.
Claims, counter-claims and rumours emerged over who would fill the shoes of Pakistan’s most-wanted man, but the infighting appeared to have ended Tuesday as Hakimullah Mehsud declared himself head of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The young commander, who hails from the militant stronghold of South Waziristan in the tribal belt near Afghanistan, contradicted US and Pakistani reports and claimed that Mehsud only died a few days ago.
"He remained unconscious after being seriously injured in a drone attack and died on Sunday," Hakimullah Mehsud told AFP.
"Now the shura (meeting of elders) has unanimously appointed me as new amir (head) of Tehreek-e-Taliban… We will take revenge and soon. We will give our reply to this drone attack to America."
He said the other top contender for Taliban leadership, Wali-ur Rehman, had been named militant chief for South Waziristan, and denied any infighting.
But observers and analysts say that rifts remain, with the two militant commanders apparently entering into a power-sharing deal.
Brigadier Mahmood Shah, former security chief of Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, said Mehsud’s death was a "great loss" to the extremists.
"There has been infighting among different groups which finally resulted in the division of power and authority in the TTP," he told AFP.
Hasan Askari, a political and defence analyst, said that the TTP was going through a transition phase which might hobble any efforts to launch fresh strikes, but warned there was a supply of suicide bombers ready to attack.
"The TTP will not be fully paying attention to fighting against Pakistan, but this also does not mean that the threat is over," he told AFP.
"They can send suicide bombers within Pakistan. But this is an opportunity for Pakistan to encourage internal rifts."
Hakimullah Mehsud, believed to be about 30-years-old, made a name for himself within the militant structure with his ruthless rule in the tribal districts of Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram, security officials say.
He was behind many attacks on NATO supply trucks heading to foreign troops over the border in Afghanistan, once posing for journalists with a US military Humvee vehicle reportedly snatched from one of the convoys.
Baitullah Mehsud was Pakistan’s most-wanted militant, with a five million dollar US bounty on his head. The government has blamed the TTP for most of the attacks which have killed more than 2,000 people here in the last two years.
Washington, meanwhile, had branded Baitullah Mehsud a "key Al-Qaeda facilitator" in the tribal areas.
The TTP operates out of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous districts along the Afghan border, where Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels carved out a base after the 2001 US-led invasion pushed them out of neighbouring Afghanistan.
"He (Hakimullah Mehsud) can be dangerous for the Americans to the extent that TTP can provide support to Taliban in Afghanistan and give them refuge on Pakistan side," said Askari.