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Baitullah Mehsud has links with ISI: report

The chief of Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who claimed credit for the recent deadly attack on a police academy near Lahore, has links with the country's Inter-Service Intelligence.

world Updated: Apr 11, 2009 11:23 IST

Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of Pakistani Taliban, who claimed credit for the recent deadly attack on a police academy near Lahore, has links with the country's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), a media report said on Saturday.

Based in lawless border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mehsud was tipped off by ISI, to enable him escape attempts to capture or kill him in the last two years, Newsweek reported.

Several operations were launched by Pakistani security forces in the last couple of years to kill or capture Mehsud, who is also suspected to have hand in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the news magazine noted. But each time he vanished without incident.

He heads a group known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban and has made a name for himself since late 2007 as one of the militants' most ambitious leaders, Newsweek said.

Two counter-terrorism experts familiar with official US government's reporting told the magazine that officials in both Washington and Islamabad suspect Mehsud has contacts inside the ISI, Pakistan's 'inscrutable and sprawling intelligence agency'.

Mehsud's contacts, the theory goes, are tipping him off before Pakistani troops can pounce, Newsweek said.

The report quoted a Pakistani source, who follows the issue, as saying that high-level American officials have shared with their counterparts in Islamabad some intelligence, indicating that renegade ISI elements helped Mehsud's group train for the December 2007 assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

US officials, it said, either declined to discuss that point or said they couldn't confirm it.

Given Mehsud's 'odious reputation' and Pakistan's 'purported knowledge' of his whereabouts, "it's a puzzle why they're ignoring and avoiding any strike against him," one tribal elder in the region told Newsweek.

"Baitullah is very much mixed up in Afghanistan and with Al- -Qaeda," one Afghan Taliban commander told the news magazine, adding that Mehsud was capable of shipping foreign fighters into Afghanistan 'and even [farther] west'.

Several US officials consider such threats to be mere chest-thumping, but they don't rule out the possibility that Mehsud could be cooperating with better-equipped jihadists, such as the remnants of Qaeda's high command, the report said.

Frances Townsend, a top counter-terrorism adviser to former president George W Bush, notes that Mehsud has already demonstrated his ability to mount attacks inside Pakistani cities, well beyond his base of operations.

"You have got to be careful about dismissing [his more expansive threats] out of hand," Townsend warned.