- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan | Pakistani Taliban commanders acknowledged Tuesday that the militants’ top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was dead, ending weeks of claims and counterclaims over his fate following a U.S. missile strike on his father-in-law’s home this month.

Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, two of Mehsud’s top aides and reportedly rivals to succeed him, called the Associated Press to say that their leader had died Sunday of injuries from the Aug. 5 strike in South Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

“He was wounded. He got the wounds in a drone strike, and he was martyred two days ago,” Hakimullah Mehsud said. Rehman later repeated the claim.

The Taliban had insisted for weeks - in periodic, sometimes contradictory telephone calls to media from various commanders - that Baitullah Mehsud was still alive following the missile strike, while U.S. and Pakistani officials said he was almost certainly dead and a leadership struggle had ensued.

Hakimullah Mehsud and Rehman denied the reports of infighting Tuesday, repeating an earlier Taliban announcement that Hakimullah Mehsud now leads the Pakistani Taliban and adding that Rehman would head the al Qaeda-linked movement’s wing in South Waziristan.

They said they were calling together - handing the telephone back and forth to each other at an undisclosed location - to dispel reports of disunity. They spoke to an AP reporter who had interviewed both and recognized their voices.

“Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences,” Rehman said.

The loss of Baitullah Mehsud - Pakistan’s most-wanted militant - is a significant blow to the Taliban. His Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, had provided a degree of unity among an array of regional and tribal factions, and under his leadership, posed a growing threat to the Pakistani government. He was suspected in dozens of suicide bombings and other assaults, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He was also accused of mounting attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

His death is a boost for both Pakistan and the U.S., which has relied heavily on the CIA-controlled missile strikes to take out militants in Pakistan’s wild northwest.

Analysts said Tuesday’s announcement was a sign that a new Taliban leader had finally emerged after the reported power struggle over who should succeed him.

Mahmood Shah, former government security chief of Pakistan’s tribal regions, said Hakimullah Mehsud had apparently won the infighting over the succession.

Mr. Shah dismissed the militants’ claim that Baitullah Mehsud had only recently succumbed to his wounds, saying he had very likely been dead all along.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan had announced Friday that Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, would lead the group because Baitullah Mehsud was ill. Members of the Mehsud clan use the same last name.

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