Confusion persisted on Sunday about the fate of two top militant commanders vying to replace Baitullah Mehsud as chief of the Pakistani Taliban, with conflicting reports emerging about their death in a fierce clash between them in the lawless tribal belt.
The fighting broke out between Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman during a meeting of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan 'shura' or council to choose Baitullah's successor following the outfit chief's reported death in a US drone attack, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said last night.
He said one of them was killed, but added that he was not in a position to confirm which of the two militant commanders had died in the clash.
State-run Pakistan Television reported that both Hakimullah and Rehman might have been killed in the clash. Private TV news channels reported that Hakimullah was killed while Rehman was seriously injured in the clash.
However, Taliban commanders in the tribal belt today refused to confirm or deny that a clash had occurred at the shura. They also said both Hakimullah and Rehman were safe. They also said the shura met to devise a strategy against US drone attacks in the tribal belt.
The shura was held in South Waziristan, long considered the stronghold of Baitullah, who was believed to command up to 20,000 militants.
Adding to the confusion were remarks made by Interior Minister Malik, who told the media that the clash between Hakimullah and Rehman occurred on Friday. However, Hakimullah spoke to several media organisations, including BBC, on Saturday to deny that Baitullah had been killed.
Pro-government militant commander Turkistan Bhitani, a rival of Baitullah, also told the media this morning that Hakimullah and Rehman had been killed in a clash. He claimed there was fierce in-fighting between Taliban factions in the wake of Baitullah's death.
However, security analysts said Bhitani's comments could not be taken at face value due to his links to the government and opposition to Baitullah's network.
Meanwhile, more details emerged today about the reported death of Baitullah in a drone attack on his father-in-law's home in South Waziristan.
The missile strike occurred as Baitullah, a diabetic, was on a drip infusion for his kidney ailment, 'The New York Times' quoted two Taliban fighters as saying.
Baitullah was being tended to by one of his wives. They were both at the home of his father-in-law, Malik Ikramuddin, in Zanghara village in South Waziristan. Ikramuddin's brother, a medical practitioner, was treating Baitullah.
"He was clearly visible with his wife...His torso remained, while half of the body was blown up," said a senior security official who had seen video of the attack shot from the drone.