Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mystery of Taliban chiefs deepens - BBC

Confusion surrounds the leadership of the Taliban in Pakistan after reports of a gun battle between potential successors to leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Pakistani officials have said they had "credible evidence" that Baitullah Mehsud had died in a US drone attack.

But a senior Taliban commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, contacted the BBC to say his chief was alive and well.

Now officials in Islamabad say Hakimullah was himself one of those killed in a fight over succession.

The BBC's Aleem Maqbool, in Islamabad, says the situation is very unclear and information is based on rumours from deep inside militant territory in north-west Pakistan.


The US and Pakistani governments say their intelligence suggests Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US rocket attack on Wednesday.

US National Security Adviser Jim Jones said on Sunday that US officials believed Baitullah Mehsud was dead.

"We think so," Mr Jones told Fox News. "The Pakistani government believes he is and all the evidence we have suggests that."

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the BBC that the authorities had received reports that a meeting of Taliban commanders in South Waziristan, called to decide on the movement's new leadership, had turned into a gun battle.

The unconfirmed reports say that Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud, was killed.

Mr Jones said he did not know if this was true.

"We've heard stories about that. I can't confirm it. It certainly appears there is dissension in the ranks. That's not a bad thing for us," he said.


However, Hakimullah Mehsud had earlier contacted the BBC to say his chief, Baitullah Mehsud, was still alive.

Mr Malik said the other Taliban leader allegedly involved in the shootout was Waliur Rehman.

The Pakistani interior minister challenged the Taliban to prove its leaders are still alive.

But Taliban commanders have dismissed the challenge as a ploy to flush them out into the open.

Speaking to Reuters, a man claiming to be Mr Rehman denied both that there had been disagreements among Taliban members and that either he or Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed.

"There are no differences. There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special Shura meeting," he said, referring to a reunion of party leaders.

Mr Rehman also insisted that Hakimullah Mehsud himself would call journalists soon to prove he too was alive.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for a Taliban group that was opposed to Baitullah Mehsud, Maulvi Saifullah Mehsud, said Baitullah's supporters were turning on one another in the struggle to find a new leader.

"Differences have arisen between the followers of Baitullah, that is why they are claiming that he is not dead," he said.

"The 'Shura' (party leaders) are at loggerheads with one another. This is going to grow in the coming days. God willing, the infighting will get worse."

The BBC's Orla Guerin, in Islamabad, said that part of the challenge of finding out facts was linked to the area's remote and rugged terrain which means access for journalists and even Pakistani troops is difficult.

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