- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The deputy leader of Taliban militants in Pakistan was killed in a U.S. drone strike Wednesday, Pakistani officials said, but the Taliban denied he had died.

Wali-ur Rehman, who also served as chief military strategist of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, was among the four people who died in the strike in the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan, the officials said.

Rehman’s death would be a significant setback for the Taliban in Pakistan.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he could not confirm reports of Rehman’s death.

“If those reports were true, or prove to be true, it’s worth noting that his demise would deprive the [Pakistan Taliban] … of its second-in-command and chief military strategist,” he said.

A Taliban spokesman denied that Rehman had been killed.

“This appears to me to be false news,” Ahsanullah Ahsan told reporters in Pakistan.

The State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information that would help authorities find Rehman.

The Pakistan Taliban have been linked to a number of terrorist attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed seven Americans at Forward Operating Base Chapman, a U.S. military base used by the CIA in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009. It is also suspected in a failed car bombing in New York City’s Times Square on May 1, 2010.

Rehman is wanted for the attack in Khost. He has also taken part in attacks on U.S. and NATO personnel in Afghanistan, and Pakistani civilians and soldiers.

It is not clear if Rehman met President Obama’s new criteria for a target of drone strikes. The president told an audience at the National Defense University last week that the United States will seek terrorists who are a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.”

The Pakistani government says the Pakistan Taliban were behind the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and a suicide bombing against the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in 2010.

Wednesday’s drone strike took place days after Mr. Obama announced new limits on such operations. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry responded to the speech by calling drone strikes counterproductive and a violation of national sovereignty.

“No one thought the drone strikes would stop, the only expectation was some good sense will prevail,” a Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.

The drone strike took place before Pakistan’s prime minister-elect, Nawaz Sharif, a critic of the drone program, takes office, giving him room to dodge public anger over the attack.

Mr. Sharif and his Cabinet will be sworn in June 5.

As leader of the opposition and later as a candidate in the May 11 parliamentary elections, Mr. Sharif said the drones violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and demanded an immediate end to strikes inside his country.

Since his electoral victory, Mr. Sharif has said he would be willing to discuss this issue with U.S. officials.

“The drone war is far from over,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who heads the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. “Sharif wants to talk to the [Pakistan Taliban], not use drones. As usual, Pakistan and America seem to be on different pages.”

Pakistan’s caretaker government Wednesday expressed “serious concerns” over the U.S. drone attack.

“The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law,” the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said.

The Pakistan Taliban, who are led by Hakimullah Mehsud, are on a State Department terrorism blacklist. Al Qaeda relies on the group for safe haven in the tribal Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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