Taliban deny chief's death as they bicker over successor

One hopeful isreported dead

The Associated PressAugust 9, 2009 

  • Pakistan considered the al-Qaida-linked Baitullah 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.

— Senior Taliban commanders denied that their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in a CIA missile strike, while conflicting reports emerged late Saturday of a clash between rival Taliban factions during a meeting to choose a successor.

Interior Minister Rahman Malik said authorities had received information about a fight breaking out during a meeting, or shura, between groups led by Hakimullah, one of the Taliban's most powerful commanders, and Waliur Rehman. Both are thought to be top contenders to replace Mehsud should reports of his death in Wednesday's strike prove true.

"We had the information that one of them is dead, so the information is being verified," Malik told local television. "We need to see the dead bodies. We need to do some DNA. We need to have something solid."

He said the incident occurred Friday. However, Hakimullah spoke to an AP reporter Saturday morning, when he called to claim that Mehsud was alive.

Another Taliban commander, Noor Sayed, denied to The Associated Press that there had been any quarrel between rival Taliban factions. He said he had spoken to Waliur Rehman himself and that he was not injured.

Nevertheless, local TV stations were running stories saying that either Hakimullah or Waliur Rehman, or both, had been killed.

Unverifiable reports

The meeting was reportedly being held somewhere in the lawless, rugged tribal region of Waziristan, an area off limits to journalists, and the claims were impossible to verify independently.

The conflicting reports came as Taliban commanders, including Hakimullah, insisted Mehsud, suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide attacks across Pakistan, was alive despite assertions he was killed during a missile strike on his father-in-law's house in South Waziristan.

On Friday, four intelligence officials said they had information that the Taliban leader had been killed in Wednesday's missile strike, but they acknowledged that authorities did not have his body as proof.

Mehsud aide Kafayat Ullah told AP on Friday that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives in his stronghold in South Waziristan, while on Saturday, Malik told Pakistani television there were "confirmed reports" that Mehsud was dead. He did not elaborate.

Yet three Taliban fighters -- Hakimullah, Qari Hussain, who is known for training suicide bombers, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar -- called AP reporters and insisted their leader was alive.

"The reports about his death are false," Hussain said, adding that "I will take revenge against the Pakistan government for celebrating the false news of Baitullah Mehsud's death."

He said he met with Mehsud on Saturday and that he was well.

But the Taliban commanders offered no proof, and the claim could be aimed at keeping militants unified until a successor could be found.

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