- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | The Pakistani government confirmed for the first time Wednesday that the country’s Taliban leader died of injuries sustained in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January, setting the stage for a potential succession struggle that could further weaken the group.

A suicide bomber attacked a vehicle carrying tribal police near Pakistan’s volatile border with Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing 17 people.

The Pakistani Taliban continue to deny Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, but the group used the same tactic when his predecessor was killed by a U.S. missile less than six months ago, acknowledging his demise weeks later to give the group time to choose a successor. Analysts say the same dynamic could be at work now.

“There will be some sort of a struggle for power for at least some time and that is why they are hiding his death,” said retired Gen. Talat Masood, a military analyst. “It will take some time for them to recover in the sense of having proper leadership.”

The Pakistani government said more than a week ago that it was investigating reports of Mehsud’s death after a Jan. 14 drone strike that targeted him in the South Waziristan tribal area. But Wednesday was the first time officials confirmed that they thought the militant leader was dead.

In response to an Associated Press query, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, wrote, “Yes, he is dead.” A senior intelligence official concurred separately.

In late January, a tribal elder told the AP that he attended Mehsud’s funeral in the Orakzai tribal region after he died at his in-laws’ home. Some local media reports, citing unnamed Taliban sources, said Mehsud died more recently in the Multan area of central Pakistan on his way to receive medical treatment in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.

Counterterrorism officials in Washington are also increasingly certain the Taliban leader has died.

Still, Mehsud has been mistakenly reported dead before.

After his predecessor died in an August missile strike, the Pakistani interior minister was among those who claimed 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.

The U.S. stepped up its missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal area after Mehsud appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in late December in eastern Afghanistan.

Reports say commanders already are lining up to vie for Mehsud’s position as Taliban chief.

Among the potential successors are Waliur Rehman, the deputy Taliban commander who oversaw operations in South Waziristan, and Maulvi Toofan, a Taliban commander reported to be based in Orakzai, a region gaining importance as militants flee there from South Waziristan.

Many analysts also have suspected that Qari Hussain, another Mehsud deputy, would be a potential successor. But Mr. Malik, the interior minister, said Wednesday that Pakistan is investigating reports that Hussain had been killed. If confirmed, Hussain’s death would be a significant blow to the group because he was in charge of training suicide bombers and had close ties to other militant networks.

The suicide bomber who attacked police in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal area Wednesday was able to get inside their vehicle before detonating his explosives, said local tribesman Izzakhana Afridi, who witnessed the bombing.

Rasheed Khan, a local government official, said the blast killed 10 policemen, six civilians and one paramilitary officer.

Also Wednesday, a Pakistani army Cobra helicopter gunship crashed in the remote Tirah Valley of Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region near the Afghanistan border, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.

Another army official said the helicopter’s pilot and gunner are missing and feared dead. He said the crash appeared to have been caused by either bad weather or a mechanical failure. Snipers fired at a rescue team sent to the crash site hours later, killing one army officer and wounding two others, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

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