Aug 10, 2009

US, Pakistan believe Baitullah is dead; Taliban deny claim

In Swat, PM Gilani vows to eliminate militancy RESULTS GUARANTEED
Pakistan’s resistance to drone strikes will soften, hopes US ISLAMABAD: The US and Pakistan are almost certain a US missile strike killed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud and that his death led to a fierce power struggle among his deputies, officials said on Sunday, despite claims and counter-claims as to the fate of the country’s most wanted man.

Government and intelligence officials, as well as some Taliban commanders and at least one rival militant have said Baitullah likely died in Wednesday’s drone strike on his father-in-law’s house.

A senior US security official said the US was 90 per cent confident Baitullah had been killed. But three Taliban commanders — Hakeemullah, Qari Hussain, who is known for training suicide bombers, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar — called AP reporters on Saturday insisting Baitullah was alive.

Neither side has produced any concrete evidence, and the claims were impossible to verify.

While it was unclear whether there had been a dispute at all – one Taliban commander Noor Sayed denied there had been any disagreement – any succession battle for the top slot in Taliban is likely to be fierce and potentially bloody.

Two intelligence officials and two Taliban sources told an AP reporter that a series of shuras were held in various locations in South Waziristan. They said that Sunday’s shura was also attended by Afghan Taliban representatives and Arab fighters to resolve differences over Mehsud’s succession.

The Taliban appeared in turmoil after reports of a deadly shootout between contenders to replace Baitullah. The contenders were reportedly Commander Hakeemullah Mehsud, a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud and the warlord’s main spokesman, and Waliur Rehman, a senior commander in Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

However, Taliban commanders have said the government is fabricating reports of dissent within its ranks to promote division and undermine the movement.

Waliur Rehman on Sunday denied reports he had been involved in a shootout with Hakeemullah.

Speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location to a Reuters reporter who had spoken with him several times before, Waliur Rehman also denied that any meeting of shura had taken place to decide on a successor to Baitullah.

‘There are no differences. There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special shura meeting,’ he said.

Hakeemullah would call journalists soon to prove he too was alive, he said. ‘He definitely will call you and tell you everything,’ he said.

Asked about Waliur Rehman’s comments, an intelligence officer in the region, who declined to be identified, said: ‘He’s just making it up.’

‘The shootout took place and some wounded were shifted to North Waziristan.’

Hakeemullah had earlier denied that Baitullah was killed in the first place.

Baitullah video

Commander Noor Sayed told Reuters by telephone that a video would soon be released to prove that Baitullah was still alive.

But military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said it was ‘quite certain’ Baitullah was dead.

‘The problem is we don’t have material evidence and that won’t be available for quite some time because obviously it’s a remote and inaccessible area,’ Gen Abbas said.

Baitullah, who suffers from diabetes, has been ill and has not been looking after the movement’s affairs for the past three months, Waliur Rehman conceded.

Hakeemullah, who controls fighters in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal regions, is regarded as one of the leading contenders to replace Baitullah, who had a $5 million US bounty on his head.—Agencies

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