This file photograph shows Pakistani Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud speaking to a group of media representatives. (AFP Photo)
The Pakistani Taliban voted on Saturday to promote their number two commander, Khan Said, also known as Sajna, to replace Hakimullah Mehsud who was killed in a strike by a US drone, militant commanders and security sources said.
Said is believed to have masterminded an attack on a jail in northwest Pakistan that freed nearly 400 prisoners in 2012 and an attack on a Pakistani air force base in the same year.
The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, a ruthless leader known for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of the security forces, is a heavy blow for the militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban -- as the militant group Mehsud headed was formally called.
The Taliban’s Shura Council, a group of commanders representing various wings of the militant group from across the tribal region and Pakistan, gathered at an undisclosed location on Saturday in the North Waziristan tribal area, the same region where the US drone strike killed Mehsud on Friday, said the commanders and officials.
Mehsud and the other four militants killed in the Friday strike were buried on Saturday at an undisclosed location, said the Taliban commanders.
All the officials and the commanders spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to talk to media.
Mehsud was killed in a village outside Miran Shah when multiple missiles slammed into a compound just after a vehicle carrying the militant commander arrived.
The other militants killed were identified as Mehsud's cousin, uncle and one of his guards. The identity of the fourth victim is not yet known.
Mehsud gained a reputation as a merciless planner of suicide attacks in Pakistan. After taking over as the Pakistani Taliban's leader, he tried to internationalise the group's focus.
Mehsud was on the US most-wanted terrorist lists with a $5 million bounty.
He also increased coordination with al Qaeda and Pakistani militants, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and funded the group's many attacks by raising money through extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery.
"This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban which may spark internal fractures in the movement," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped craft the agency's drone campaign.
Friday’s drone strike came as the Pakistan government was trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Already the strike threatened to worsen US-Pakistan relations as some Pakistani politicians called the strike an attempt to sabotage the peace talks.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in part on promises to bring peace to the country through negotiations instead of more military operations.
Mehsud's death will likely complicate efforts by the government to negotiate a peace deal. After the group's number two was killed in a drone strike in May, the Tehreek-e-Taliban fiercely rejected any idea of peace talks and accused the government of cooperating with the US in the drone strikes.
In recent weeks the TTP appeared to soften its position but had still made multiple demands for preconditions to any negotiating, including the end of drone strikes in the tribal areas.
Popular politician Imran Khan has been one of the most vocal critics of the strikes. His party runs the government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and has threatened to block trucks carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan unless the attacks stop.
Speaking on Pakistan's Dunya TV late on Friday, Khan said the US was trying to sabotage efforts to bring peace to Pakistan.
"Now it is proven who is against peace in this country. They will never let peace to come in this country," Khan said. "Whenever there has been any effort for peace and dialogue it has been sabotaged by drone attacks." Drones were still said to be flying over North Waziristan on Saturday. Witnesses in the towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah reported that Mehsud's supporters were firing at them in anger.