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Baitullah Mehsud has a brush with death in US drone attacks

world Updated: Jun 24, 2009 16:38 IST

Tehrik-e-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's most wanted man, might have narrowly escaped death in hurricane missile strikes by US drones that killed about 50 people in country's restive northwest.

US drones yesterday fired three missiles at a Taliban training centre near the village of Makeen, 60 kms from Waziristan's chief town of Wanna, killing seven militants, then another barrage of seven missiles rain down on the same area at a funeral procession for some of those killed in the first attack.

Over 40 militants were killed in the second attack.

Earlier, local officials were quoted by TV channels as saying that Baitullah Mehsud was at the funeral, which media reports saying he had a very close call.

Local officials and intelligence reports suggested that militants had lost contact with Mehsud for a while after the attack.

But, media reports today while confirming that Mehsud had visited the village where the funeral took place, said the the militants leader left before the lethal second attack.

Hundreds of top ranking Taliban leaders attended the funeral and their presence, the sources said, indicated that the first drone attack had taken out a high-value target.

Local officials later said one of the Mehsud's top commanders Sangeen Khan was killed in Tuesday's initial drone attack.

In the hurricane missile attacks, some senior Taliban leaders were killed or wounded. Other reports said, some foreign militants of Arab, Tajik, Uzbeks and Chechen origins were also present at the funeral.

Baitullah Mehsud is accused of plotting a wave of suicide attacks on Pakistani mainland, including assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Luxury Hotel Marriott bombing and attack on visiting Sri Lankan cricket team.

Mehsud's forces have got the better off Pakistan army in the past and apprehending a major offensive, he has been closing ranks by forging fresh alliances with other powerful Taliban leaders and bumping off opponents.

Pakistani officials are struggling to determine the death toll from the drone attacks as the mountainous area of Waziristan bordering Afghanistan is out of reach of government forces.

The Pakistan military as well as the US have practically no ground assets in the area and in case of major ground assault, army troops would be dependent on surveillance and intelligence inputs by the US.

Intelligence sources estimate Mehsud's strength at upward of 12,000 fighters. These include Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs, Uzbeks, Burmese, Chinese and even some Americans and Australians.