- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Security forces captured the Pakistani Taliban’s top spokesman and an aide to the group’s leader, officials said Tuesday - in another blow to the militant network reeling from the apparent killing of its chief in a CIA missile strike.

Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar told interrogators Tuesday that the movement’s chief, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in an Aug. 5 strike close to the Afghan border, according to an intelligence official who took part in the questioning. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they were almost certain that Mehsud had been killed in the attack. But final confirmation has been hard because authorities have not seen his body and at least three Taliban operatives - including Umar - had called media organizations soon after the attack to say he was still alive.

Visiting U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke said Mehsud’s apparent death had sparked a “succession crisis.”

“The chaos benefits us, but it doesn’t mean that this thing is over,” he told CNN in comments reported Tuesday.

Umar’s capture came Monday night - the same evening as that of another Mehsud aide, Qari Saifullah, who was picked up as he was being treated in a private hospital in the capital, Islamabad, intelligence officials said.

Saifullah told police he had been wounded in a U.S. missile strike in South Waziristan, police said. It was not clear whether it was the same strike that is thought to have killed Mehsud.

Accounts of Umar’s arrest in Mohmand tribal region, which lies further north, suggest that local tribesmen were emboldened to help authorities in the wake of Mehsud’s reported demise.

The Taliban spokesman was captured along with two associates in a village close to the Afghan border, said Javed Khan, a local government administrator.

Tribal elders had assisted troops in locating Umar in the village of Khawazeo, another intelligence official said. Before Mehsud’s death, villagers did not dare tip off authorities about his presence out of fear of Mehsud, the official said, also on the condition of anonymity.

As the Taliban mouthpiece, Umar initially operated relatively openly - a reflection of Pakistan’s previous reluctance to tackle the group.

After Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan was formed by Mehsud in 2007 as an umbrella organization for regional and tribal militant movements, Umar frequently called journalists to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

In an interview with The Washington Times last August, Umar warned that suicide bombers were waiting in every “nook and cranny” of Pakistan and also have crossed the border to attack U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“We don’t force anybody to do suicide attacks. They automatically come to us and request a chance to sacrifice their lives for Allah,” he said.

Reporters had Umar’s home and cell phone numbers. Umar would occasionally summon Pakistani reporters stationed in Khar, the main city in Bajur tribal region, for news conferences at his headquarters in nearby Mamund town.

But after the army began an offensive in April, Umar changed phone numbers frequently. He never appeared in public, but still continued to telephone the media with messages from the Taliban leadership.

Officials say Umar was also an influential aide to Mehsud and ranking member of the Taliban who frequently met with militant commanders in the tribal regions, lawless areas where al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are thought to have found refuge.

A senior intelligence officer described Umar as an important coordinator for the Taliban, and said his arrest would break an important link in the militants’ network.

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