Pakistan Trying to Verify Taliban Leader's Death

By Ishtiaq Mahsud and Munir Ahmad | August 7, 2009 | 5:43 AM EDT
Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan (AP) - Pakistan's foreign minister says he has received intelligence information that Pakistan's Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a missile strike, but that authorities were heading to the area for verification.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in Islamabad on Friday that "to be 100 percent sure, we are going for ground verification."
Three Pakistani intelligence officials said earlier Friday that Mehsud had been killed in a U.S. missile strike Wednesday and that he had been buried. But one of the three said no intelligence agent had actually seen his body.
Mehsud has led a violent campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations against the Pakistani government. If confirmed, his demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Mehsud has al-Qaida connections and has been suspected in the killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan views him as its top internal threat and has been preparing an offensive against him.
For years, the U.S. has considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al-Qaida, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
That view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud's power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilize the U.S. ally and threaten the entire region.
But while Mehsud's death would be a big blow to the Taliban in Pakistan, he has deputies who could take his place. Whether a new leader could wreak as much havoc as Mehsud depends largely on how much pressure the Pakistani military continues to put on the network, especially in the lawless tribal area of South Waziristan.
The Pakistani intelligence officials said Mehsud was killed in a missile strike Wednesday on the home of his father-in-law and that his body was buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan, not far from the site of the strike.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
One official said he had seen a classified intelligence report stating Mehsud was dead and buried, but that agents had not seen the body as the area was under Taliban control.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he could confirm the death of Mehsud's wife but not of the Taliban leader himself, although information pointed in that direction.
"I can confirm to the extent that his wife is dead, and probably one of his brothers, but we do not have any ... evidence that he's dead," Malik told reporters outside Parliament. But he added: "Yes, lot of information is pouring in from that area that he's dead, but I'm unable to confirm unless I have solid evidence."
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said "about 70 percent" of the information pointed to Mehsud's being dead, but authorities had not yet been able to confirm this. He said authorities had not recovered a body.
Another senior Pakistani intelligence official said phone and other communications intercepts -- he would not be more specific -- had led authorities to suspect Mehsud was dead, but he also stressed there was no definitive evidence yet.
An American counterterrorism official said the U.S. government was also looking into the reports. The official indicated the United States did not yet have physical evidence -- remains -- that would prove who died. But he said there are other ways of determining who was killed in the strike. He declined to describe them.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition his name not be used, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law's house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor, when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief's funeral.
Last year, a doctor for Mehsud announced the militant leader had died of kidney failure, but the reports turned out to be false.
In March, the State Department authorized a reward of up to $5 million for the militant chief. And increasingly, American missiles fired by unmanned drones have focused on Mehsud-related targets.
Pakistan publicly opposes the missile strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it harder for the army to operate. Still, many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the strikes.
Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan's military was determined to finish off the Taliban in the country.
"I have already said that it is a targeted operation; it is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mehsud's group and it will continue till Baitullah Mehsud's group is eliminated forever," he said.
Pakistan's record on putting pressure on the Taliban network is spotty. It has used both military action and truces to try to contain Mehsud over the years, but neither tactic seemed to work, despite billions in U.S. aid aimed at helping the Pakistanis tame the tribal areas.
Mehsud was not that prominent a militant when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions. In fact, Mehsud has struggled against such rivals as Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who had spent time in Guantanamo Bay.
But a February 2005 peace deal with Mehsud appeared to give him room to consolidate and boost his troop strength. Within months of that accord, dozens of pro-government tribal elders in the region were gunned down on his command.
In December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan's Taliban movement. Under his guidance, the group killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks.
Analysts say the reason for Mehsud's rise in the militant ranks is his alliances with al-Qaida and other violent groups. U.S. intelligence has said al-Qaida has set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud's South Waziristan stronghold and neighboring North Waziristan.
Mehsud has no record of attacking targets in the West, although he has threatened to attack Washington.
However, he is suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. Pakistan's former government and the CIA have named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister. He has denied a role.
He also has withstood threats from within Taliban ranks. A few weeks ago, Qari Zainuddin, the leader of a renegade Pakistani Taliban faction who had criticized Mehsud's tactics, was shot dead -- allegedly on Mehsud's orders.
Munir Ahmad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi and Elena Becatoros in Islamabad, and Pamela Hess in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Pakistan's foreign minister says he has received intelligence information that Pakistan's Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a missile strike, but that authorities were heading to the area for verification.