Aug 25, 2009

Taliban finally lay Baitullah saga to rest

It is the first time that the militant group has acknowledged his death. Two of Baitullah’s top aides, Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, called The Associated Press on Tuesday evening to say that he had died on Sunday of wounds from the Aug 5 strike near the Afghan border.

‘He was wounded. He got the wounds in a drone strike and he was martyred two days ago,’ Hakeemullah said. Rehman later repeated the same statement.

Both also confirmed an earlier Taliban announcement that Hakeemullah was now leading the Pakistani Taliban, while Waliur Rehman would lead the movement’s wing in South Waziristan.

The Taliban had insisted for weeks that Baitullah Mehsud was still alive following the missile strike, while US and Pakistani officials said he was almost certainly dead and a leadership struggle had ensued.

Hakeemullah and Waliur Rehman, who had served as top aides to Baitullah, said they were calling together -– handing the telephone back and forth to each other -– to dispel reports of disunity in the Taliban leadership. They spoke to an AP reporter who had interviewed both and recognised their voices.

‘Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences,’ Rehman said.

Both men had been named as candidates -– and possibly rivals -– to replace Baitullah Mehsud as chief of the Al Qaeda-linked movement, which is blamed for dozens of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and also for planning attacks on US troops across the border in Afghanistan.

The 28-year-old Hakeemullah commanded three tribal regions and had a reputation as Baitullah’s most ferocious deputy.

He first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008 when he offered to take reporters on a ride in a US Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan.

Hakeemullah claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar.

He also threatened suicide bombings in Pakistani cities in retaliation for a recent army offensive in the Swat valley, which has been winding down in recent weeks.

The BBC’s Aleem Maqbool says the Pakistani government will be pleased that the Taliban has confirmed the death of Baitullah Mehsud.

It has been unable to provide tangible evidence of his death because of the remote and hostile terrain of Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan.

There were also claims that Hakeemullah had been killed in a clash with supporters of Waliur Rehman. The fate of Baitullah Mehsud has also been the subject of intense speculation.—Agencies

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