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Pakistan Taliban appears in turmoil

Pakistan's Taliban appears in turmoil after reports of a deadly shootout between contenders to replace the shadowy movement's leader, believed to have been killed in a US drone attack.

world Updated: Aug 09, 2009 12:24 IST

Pakistan's Taliban appears in turmoil after reports of a deadly shootout between contenders to replace the shadowy movement's leader, believed to have been killed in a US drone attack.

Intelligence officials said on Friday Baitullah Mehsud, who had a five million dollar bounty on his head, was killed in a US drone attack, although the government is still seeking confirmation.

There are unconfirmed reports of a deadly shooting at a meeting of top Taliban commanders in South Waziristan region, which Interior Minister Rehman Malik said were being investigated.

"We have reports that there was fighting between Wali-ur Rehman and Hakimullah... I said earlier that one of them is dead. I will not disclose the name. I am seeking verification," Malik told a private Pakistani TV channel.

The men were reportedly at a meeting of commanders in the tribal region of South Waziristan to choose a possible successor to Mehsud.

Hakimullah Mehsud served as a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud and the warlord's main spokesman. Wali-ur Rehman was a senior commander in Mehsud's umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement.

But despite the apparent internal turmoil among the Taliban, security analyst Hasan Askari warned the threat was not over and said Pakistani authorities would have to re-establish control in the tribal areas.

Baitullah Mehsud, branded by Washington as "a key Al-Qaeda facilitator," had reportedly narrowly escaped previous attacks.

He was at the top of the Pakistani government's most-wanted list, having been implicated in the 2007 assassination of prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose husband is now president.

He went on to lead a campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations and insurgent attacks that swept out of the border tribal areas into the Swat Valley, threatening Islamabad.

Islamabad and Washington had said liquidating Mehsud was a strategic aim in the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists, whom the United States has said pose an existential threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The US Central Intelligence Agency, with the tacit cooperation of Islamabad, has carried out dozens of attacks in Pakistan using unmanned Predator and Reaper drones over the past year, but declines to discuss the strikes publicly.

Despite the belief of senior officials in Pakistan's powerful security establishment who supervise operations in Mehsud's Waziristan stronghold that he is dead, the Taliban have told media outlets that he is still alive, although they have provided no evidence.

"The current situation practically shows that the government also does not really have access to the area, which makes it difficult to verify the information that is coming through diverse sources," Askari said.

However, he said he strongly believed that Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) had "entered an uncertain phase due to a leadership crisis which may heighten internal conflict."

Asked what would be the impact of Mehsud's death on the TTP, Askari said: "This can reduce its terrorist activities for the time being."

"But the overall threat of extremism and terrorism based in the tribal areas will continue to haunt the Pakistani state and society for some time," he added.