- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

UPDATED:

One of Pakistan’s most wanted and dangerous terrorists, Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, died in a U.S. drone attack that also took the life of one his two wives on Wednesday, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said.

The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, told The Washington Times that Mehsud is dead and that the Pakistani Taliban is expected to choose his brother, Hakimullah Mehsud, as the new leader of the militant group.

“I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,” Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told the Associated Press by telephone Friday.

U.S. counterterrorism officials would neither confirm nor deny the reports. However, one U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “We would look for the Taliban to elect a new leader quickly if [Baitullah Mehsud] had been killed.” A second senior Pakistani official, who also asked not to be named because of the nature of his work, said earlier that it would take “awhile to get test results back on DNA samples before it can be verified absolutely that Mehsud was killed in the strike.”

Mehsud has been a prime target of the U.S. and Pakistani governments in recent months as they sought to turn back Taliban advances in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The United States has a $5 million bounty on Mehsud, who is thought to be responsible for the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide bombings.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday that there were strong indications that Mehsud was dead.

“We suspect he was killed in the missile strike,” he said. “We have some information, but we don’t have material evidence to confirm it.”

U.S. and Pakistani officials said they were investigating intelligence about the raid, which occurred at the home of Mehsud’s father-in-law in South Waziristan, a tribal region close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The attack killed the second of Mehsud’s two wives and at least one other person, Pakistani officials said Wednesday.

“There are rumors circulating in that region that Mehsud has been killed, but there are no confirmed reports,” the senior Pakistani official told The Washington Times. However, “for the U.S. to strike that particular region on Wednesday, they must have had evidence of some kind that [Mehsud] was there.”

In July, Mehsud, who is thought to have close ties with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, narrowly escaped a U.S. drone attack that killed about 80 people attending a funeral. U.S. officials were watching the funeral by video feed from the drone, which flew high above the scene, concealed by clouds. The drone strike was the closest the United States had come to killing Mehsud in the past year, U.S. officials said at the time.

The July strike did kill Taliban commander Qari Hussain, who was a close aide to Mehsud, Pakistani officials told The Times.

The Times first reported in July that Mehsud was buying or abducting children as young as 7 to serve as suicide bombers in a growing spate of attacks against Pakistani, Afghan and U.S. targets.

A U.S. Defense Department official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said Mehsud’s group was becoming extremely violent, adding that Mehsud “has turned suicide bombing into a production output, not unlike [the way] Toyota outputs cars.”

Over the summer, Pakistani forces, who view Mehsud as enemy No. 1, bombed access points and roads used by the Taliban in Waziristan and threatened but did not launch an all-out assault on the area.

U.S. defense officials say the Pakistani government has made some gains against Mehsud’s forces and that intelligence sharing between the United States and Pakistan has improved in targeting militants.

Mehsud’s elimination would be a major success for Pakistan and a big psychological boost for U.S.-led forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, in the past, Islamic militant groups have been able to find successors relatively quickly.

In addition to the U.S. bounty, Pakistani officials have offered a reward of $615,000 for information leading to the capture or death of the Taliban leader.

Mehsud took leadership of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Movement of Taliban of Pakistan, in 2007. The group comprises 13 tribal factions that have sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Mehsud is thought to have between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters and an undetermined number of foreign al Qaeda foot soldiers.

Mehsud, 35, was born in Bannu, South Waziristan, the poorest of seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan.

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