- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2010

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The head of the Pakistani Taliban is now believed to have survived a U.S. missile strike earlier this year, intelligence officials said Thursday, reversing earlier claims he had died and handing the militants something of a propaganda victory.

U.S. security officials had also said they believed Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in the January attack in an area between the North and South Waziristan tribal regions close to the Afghanistan border. They were not immediately available for comment.

The Taliban themselves had always claimed Mehsud was alive, but have said they were not going to offer any evidence such as a video recording because doing so could help security forces hunt him down. Until or unless they do, questions are likely to remain over his fate, given the patchy nature of intelligence from the tribal regions.

Four intelligence officials said Pakistan’s main spy agency now believed Mehsud was alive and well. They cited electronic surveillance and reports from sources in the field, including from inside the Taliban. One official said Mehsud was believed to have been wounded in the attack and had been seen alive after the attack.

All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they work for the spy agencies, which do not allow operatives to be named in the media.

One senior official said Mehsud was no longer the major force in the movement, which has carried out scores of attacks in Pakistan in recent years and is allied to al Qaeda and militants in Afghanistan fighting U.S. and NATO troops. He said other Taliban commanders, such as Waliur Rehman, were now overshadowing him.

He did not explain why this was, though the movement has been pummeled over the last six months by U.S. missile attacks and Pakistan army offensives that have pushed it from once-secure bases.

None of the intelligence officials explained how earlier statements that he had died were wrong.

On Feb. 10, Pakistan’s chief civilian security official, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, confirmed reports that Hakimullah was dead.

On Feb. 3, a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters, said that the best collective information of U.S. intelligence agencies was that the militant was dead. The official would not say what evidence the U.S. had gathered.

The United States has greatly expanded its covert missile strike program in northwest Pakistan over the last 20 months. This year alone it has carried out more than 30 such attacks. U.S. officials do not talk about the program on the record.

In early January, Mehsud appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in late December in eastern Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban have been known to deny militant leaders’ deaths even when true. They waited for some three weeks to confirm that Mehsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in an August strike as they squabbled over who would be his heir.

This time, however, the militants never changed their stance that Hakimullah Mehsud had survived, though they would not let any reporters interview him. There was never a martyrdom video or official announcement of his death posted on jihadi websites, either, adding credence to the notion he was still alive.

If he is alive, it won’t be the first time Hakimullah Mehsud, believed to be in his 20s, has defied reports of his death.

After his predecessor died, the interior minister was among those who claimed Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a succession struggle. But the militant met with reporters, on camera, in the weeks afterward and went on to lead a surge of bomb attacks across the country that left more than 600 people dead in the last three months of 2009.

AP writer Ishtiaq Mahsud reported from Dera Ismail Khan.

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