Mehsud alive, says Pak Taliban commander

Mehsud alive, says Pak Taliban commander

Baitullah Mehsud

A fellow commander in the Pakistani Taliban insisted that Baitullah Mehsud, the movement's leader, was alive, the BBC reported on Saturday, rejecting government claims he had been eliminated in a U.S. drone strike.

Hakimullah Mehsud, one of the most powerful commanders in the tribal region, described reports of Mehsud's death as "ridiculous" and said it was "the handiwork of the intelligence agencies", the BBC Urdu service website said.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on Friday the government was "pretty certain" that Mehsud perished in the missile blitz on Wednesday that also killed his second wife, a brother, seven bodyguards and destroyed his car.

Some analysts suspected that the Pakistani Taliban's leadership was divided over who should become the next chief and the denial aimed to buy time until a new leader is chosen.

Western governments with troops in Afghanistan are watching to see if any new Pakistani Taliban leader should shift focus from fighting the Pakistani government, and put their weight behind the Afghan insurgency led by Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Hakimullah, who controls fighters in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal regions, is regarded as one of the leading contenders to replace Baitullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.

There was no independent confirmation of Hakimullah's claim, the BBC said.

The Pakistan government concluded from strong information gathered by intelligence agencies that Mehsud was dead, though it lacked physical evidence as the missile strike took place deep in Taliban-held territory in the South Waziristan tribal region.

"It is pretty certain now that he is dead," Qureshi told BBC Radio. "Various government agencies have reported so, his own followers have said so, there are people who have been to the funeral and are witness to the burial."

A senior official who requested anonymity went further.

"It's 100 percent certain now," a senior member of the Pakistan government told Reuters, explaining that the intelligence services had obtained confirmation of Mehsud's death from family members.

In the United States, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Washington could not confirm Mehsud had been killed, but added: "There seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers that he is indeed dead."

TALIBAN IN DISARRAY

Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007 and his fighters have staged a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Qureshi anticipated the death of Mehsud would leave a void in the Taliban movement that could lead to divisions.

"With him gone, I think there is going to be an internal struggle and disarray in their ranks, I think it will set in demobilisation. It is a great success for the forces that are fighting extremism and terrorism in Pakistan," Qureshi said.

Pakistan's military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas challenged the Taliban to prove their leader was still alive.

"Anybody can say anything... let them prove something," he said.

Rahimullah Yousufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on Taliban and tribal affairs, said the government should release electronic intercepts to back up its claim that Mehsud is dead, or the Taliban should issue a video to show he's alive.

"I'll be cautious believing claims by the government or the Taliban as both have made claims without evidence," he said.

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