ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Taliban chief was killed by a CIA missile strike, a militant commander confirmed Friday -- a severe blow to extremists threatening the stability of this nuclear-armed nation, and a possible boost to U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in fighting insurgents who wreak havoc along the Afghan border.
Pakistani officials vowed to dismantle the rest of the network run by Baitullah Mehsud regardless of who takes over, a move seen as essential to crippling the violent Islamists behind dozens of suicide attacks and beheadings in the country.
Pakistan considered the al-Qaida-linked Mehsud its No. 1 internal threat. He was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and many other assaults. He claimed responsibility for some, including an audacious attack on a police academy in March that killed 12 people.
His death would be a victory for President Barack Obama and a nod to the Bush administration, both of whom have relied heavily on the CIA-controlled missile strikes to take out militants in Pakistan's wild northwest. The United States had a $5million bounty on Mehsud, whom it considered a threat to the Afghan war effort.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that the administration could not confirm the death, but was aware it was the growing consensus among "credible observers."
"If he is dead, without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer," Gibbs said.
Islamabad officially protests the missile strikes, although many analysts suspect the two countries coordinate on the drone-fired attacks. Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives Wednesday in his South Waziristan stronghold, his militant aide said.
"I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan," Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told AP by telephone.
Pakistani leaders said they were getting the same reports and were reasonably sure of their accuracy but did not have forensic evidence such as a body for irrefutable confirmation. Final confirmation could take days or weeks.
Pakistani officials would not say they coordinated with the United States on the strike, although they insist they cooperate with U.S. and Afghan forces on border-related operations. Intelligence sharing between the United States and Pakistan has been increasing in the last year now that Pakistan has a civilian government and shown a growing willingness to battle militants in its borders.
There apparently was no official criticism or popular outcry against the missile strike that killed Mehsud, despite public fury over other U.S. attacks.
The United States for years considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some other militants because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, however, U.S. drones began repeatedly striking Mehsud's territory in Pakistan's South Waziristan region as his power grew and concerns mounted that violence could destabilize Pakistan and threaten the region. In addition, some of Mehsud's fighters were suspected of attacking supply convoys for U.S. and NATO forces through Pakistan.
Whether Pakistan will now aim for militant leaders that are a greater threat to the United States -- such as those led by Maulvi Naseer Wazir in South Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan or the Haqqani group -- remains to be seen, although the United States success in taking out Mehsud could be a strong nudge.