Peshawar, Pakistan (AP) – The Pakistani government confirmed for the first time Wednesday that the country's Taliban leader has died of injuries sustained in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January, setting the stage for a potential succession struggle that could further weaken the group.
But analysts caution that Hakimullah Mehsud's death would not deal the al-Qaida-linked militants a knockout blow nor bring an end to attacks that have killed hundreds of people in the past few months. A suicide bomber attacked a vehicle carrying tribal police near Pakistan's volatile border with Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing 17 people.
The Pakistani Taliban continue to deny Mehsud's death, but the group used the same tactic when his predecessor was killed by a U.S. missile less than six months ago, only admitting his demise weeks later to give the group time to choose a successor. Analysts believe the same dynamic could be at work now.
"There will be some sort of a struggle for power for at least some time and that is why they are hiding his death," retired general and military analyst Talat Masood said. "It will take some time for them to recover in the sense of having proper leadership."
The Pakistani government said more than a week ago that it was investigating reports of Mehsud's death following a Jan. 14 drone strike that targeted him in the South Waziristan tribal area. But Wednesday was the first time officials confirmed that they believe the militant leader is dead.
In a response to an Associated Press query, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, wrote, "Yes, he is dead." A senior intelligence official concurred separately. Neither gave details as to when or how the militant died.
The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In late January, a tribal elder told the AP that he attended Mehsud's funeral in the Orakzai tribal region after he died at his in-laws' home. Some local media reports, citing unnamed Taliban sources, said Mehsud died more recently in the Multan area of central Pakistan on his way to receive medical treatment in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi.
Counterterrorism officials in Washington are also increasingly certain he has died.
Still, Mehsud has been mistakenly reported dead before.
After his predecessor died in an August missile strike, the Pakistani interior minister was among those who claimed Mehsud was killed in a succession struggle. But the militant met with reporters, on camera, in the weeks afterward and went on to lead a surge of bomb attacks across the country that left more than 600 people dead.
The U.S. stepped up its missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal area after Mehsud appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in late December in eastern Afghanistan.
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert, said Mehsud's reported death comes at a particularly bad time for the Pakistani Taliban because the group is trying to recover from having lost its main sanctuary near the Afghan border. The army invaded South Waziristan in mid-October, forcing many of the militants to flee.
"They will survive. They will continue to make their presence felt through occasional bombings, suicide attacks," said Yousafzai. "But it is going to be very difficult for them to launch those big spectacular attacks, which they used to do."
There are reports that commanders already are lining up to vie for Mehsud's position as Taliban chief.
Among the potential successors are Waliur Rehman, the deputy Taliban commander who oversaw operations in South Waziristan, and Maulvi Toofan, a Taliban commander reported to be based in Orakzai, a region gaining importance as militants flee there from South Waziristan.
Many analysts have also suspected that Qari Hussain, another Mehsud deputy, would be a potential successor. But Malik, the interior minister, said Wednesday that Pakistan is investigating reports Hussein had been killed. If confirmed, Hussain's death would be a significant blow to the group because he was in charge of training suicide bombers and had close ties to other militant networks.
The suicide bomber who attacked police in Pakistan's Khyber tribal area Wednesday was able to get inside their vehicle before detonating his explosives, said local tribesman Izzakhana Afridi, who witnessed the bombing.
Rasheed Khan, a local government official, said the blast killed 10 policemen, six civilians and one paramilitary officer.
Police official Ibrahim Khan, who survived the explosion because he was outside the vehicle, said the blast also injured about a dozen other civilians.
No group has claimed responsibility, but Taliban militants often target Pakistani security forces.
Also Wednesday, a Pakistani army Cobra helicopter gunship crashed in the remote Tirah Valley of Pakistan's Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Another army official said the helicopter's pilot and gunner are missing and feared dead. He said the crash appeared to have been caused by either bad weather or a mechanical failure. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Snipers fired at a rescue team sent to the crash site hours later, killing one army officer and wounding two others, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
(Ahmad reported from Islamabad.)
The Pakistani government confirms that the country's Taliban leader died of injuries sustained in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January. Hakimullah Mehsud has been mistakenly reported dead before.