, Miranshah, Pakistan November 2- The Pakistani Taliban’s ruling council met Saturday to choose a new leader after a US drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, as the government said it was determined to press ahead with peace talks.
Mehsud, who was under a $5 million US government bounty, was buried late Friday after being killed when a drone targeted his car in a compound in North Waziristan tribal district.
The killing of its young, energetic leader represents a major setback for the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a coalition of factions that has claimed some of the most high profile attacks in Pakistan in recent years.
It also presents a major obstacle to the government’s efforts to begin peace talks to end the TTP’s bloody six year insurgency that has left thousands of soldiers, police and civilians dead.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been expected to send a delegation to open contacts with the militants, after winning backing for dialogue from political parties last month.
Federal information minister Pervez Rasheed insisted Mehsud’s death would not derail the process.
“We can say that this time drone struck the peace talks but we will not let the peace talks die,” Rasheed told reporters.
Mehsud’s death is the third major blow struck against the TTP by the US this year, following the killing of number two Waliur Rehman in a drone strike in May and the capture of another senior lieutenant in Afghanistan last month.
The TTP’s supreme shura, or decision-making council, met Saturday to decide who should now lead the network, which emerged in the wake of a deadly 2007 military raid on the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad.
“The members of the supreme shura are taking opinions from all the shura members and senior commanders,” a Taliban commander told AFP.
“The decision may take more time because the shura members are constantly changing the meeting place.”
Militants in the tribal areas move around frequently to avoid the attentions of the US drones that hover in the sky almost continuously.
More than five names are under consideration to take over from Mehsud. They include Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, the head of the central shura and Khan Said, known by the alias Sajna, who became number two after Rehman’s death in May.
Also in the frame is Maulana Fazlullah, known sometimes as Mullah Radio, a radical cleric who led Taliban’s hardline two year rule in the Swat Valley.
A senior Taliban figure dismissed media reports that Said had been elected as “speculation” and said the shura was still in session on Saturday afternoon.
Opposition parties accused the US of using the drone strike to stymie the peace process before talks proper had even started.
Former cricketer Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehrek e Insaaf (PTI) party that rules in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said the strike had “sabotaged” peace talks.
“It has proved that they (the Americans) do not want peace in Pakistan,” said Khan, who said PTI would move to block the transit of NATO supplies through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Afghanistan.
Jan Achakzai, spokesman for the key Jamiat Ulema e Islam Fazl (JUI F) religious party whose head Fazlur Rehman is helping government in contacts with Taliban, condemned the drone strike.
“It is a setback for a peace camp in Pakistan. The drone attack has been carried out a time when there was an enabling environment for peace talks and despite the Americans saying they supported the internal reconciliations,” he told AFP.
Saifullah Khan Mehsud of Islamabad’s FATA Research Center, an expert on Pakistan’s tribal belt, said the killing of the Taliban commander would disrupt the peace process in the short term but ultimately the elimination of such a hardliner could prove beneficial.
Without commenting on Mehsud’s death, the foreign ministry followed its usual practice of condemning the drone strike as a violation of sovereignty and counter-productive.
But for the US, Mehsud’s death will represent a success for the CIA’s drone programme at a time when it is under intense scrutiny over civilian casualties.
The killing has prompted fears of TTP reprisals, as happened after the death of founder Baitullah Mehsud in 2009. In Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, the usually busy market was virtually deserted.
Mehsud became TTP leader after a power struggle following Baitullah’s death in a drone strike in August 2009
His death was widely reported in 2010 but he resurfaced in a video taunting the West and vowing more attacks on US targets.
The TTP has risen to become arguably the biggest security threat facing Pakistan. It was behind the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel and the attempt to kill schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai last year.
The TTP also claimed the 2010 Times Square bomb plot after training Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad.