Sunday, August 9, 2009

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

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said authorities had received information about a fight breaking out during a meeting between groups led by Hakimullah Mehsud, one of the Taliban’s most powerful commanders, and Waliur Rehman. Both are thought to be top contenders to replace Baitullah 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. We need to see the dead bodies; we need to do some DNA; we need to have something solid,” Mr. Malik told local television.

Related article: Adviser: U.S. believes Mehsud dead

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

A senior government official who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the situation said there were reports of a clash among Taliban guards at a meeting Saturday evening and indications some people had been wounded, but that there was no credible information to suggest any of the Taliban leaders were among them.

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

The meeting was reportedly being held somewhere in the lawless 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 insisted Baitullah 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 acknowledged that authorities did not have his body as proof. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Baitullah Mehsud’s aide Kafayat Ullah told the Associated Press on Friday that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives in his stronghold in South Waziristan, while on Saturday, Mr. Malik told Pakistani television there were “confirmed reports” that Mehsud was dead.

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

“The reports about his death are false,” Mr. 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 Baitullah 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.

Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is a loose alliance of groups operating in Pakistan’s lawless and mountainous tribal region near the border with Afghanistan. Taking out the man who coordinated the factions could lead to fierce rivalry over who will succeed him, and it could be in the interests of the top commanders to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who would replace him.

Without irrefutable evidence either way - a body or an appearance by Baitullah Mehsud himself - it was impossible to determine whether the man Pakistan considered its No. 1 threat was dead.

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