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Pakistani forces launch air attack on Taliban

Pakistani helicopter gunships stepped up attacks on Taliban positions in the South Waziristan region on Wednesday, a day after militants confirmed that their leader was dead and announced his successor.

world Updated: Aug 26, 2009 17:59 IST
Hafiz Wazir

Pakistani helicopter gunships stepped up attacks on Taliban positions in the South Waziristan region on Wednesday, a day after militants confirmed that their leader was dead and announced his successor.

Pakistani and US officials had been saying for days that Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a missile strike by a CIA-operated drone in his South Waziristan stronghold near the Afghan border on Aug. 5, but the Taliban had been denying it.

Baitullah, an ally of al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, was accused of a series of attacks in Pakistan over the past couple of years including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Western governments with troops in Afghanistan are watching to see if a new Pakistani Taliban leader will shift focus from fighting the Pakistani government to aiding the Afghan insurgency.

Security forces have made significant gains in an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, since late April, and have also been attacking Mehsud's men in South Waziristan.

Helicopter gunships attacked militant hideouts in Madi Jam, an area 20 km (12 miles) east of South Waziristan's main town of Wana, on Wednesday after Taliban attacked a military convoy, killing two soldiers, intelligence officials and residents said.

Residents in Wana saw armoured personnel carriers heading towards Madi Jam. "Helicopters dropped leaflets asking people to leave the fighting area," Mohammad Aslam, a resident of Madi Jam, told Reuters by telephone.

Military spokesmen were not available for comment.

Pakistan and US officials had been saying the militants appeared to be in disarray since Mehsud's death. Analysts saw the Taliban's earlier denials that Mehsud was dead as an attempt to hide divisions over who should take charge of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, alliance of about 13 militant factions.

RIVALRY

Hakimullah Mehsud, an aide to Baitullah, and another senior militant, Wali-ur-Rehman, told the BBC on Tuesday that Baitullah was dead. Hakimullah said he had been chosen as the new TTP leader.

Analysts have been expecting the government to exploit the disarray with the militants' ranks but a senior military commander said last week the army would need months to prepare for an all-out assault in South Waziristan.

Hakimullah told the BBC that while he had been appointed overall head of the TTP, Rehman would lead Mehsud's estimated 10,000 to 20,000 men in South Waziristan.

A Pakistani security official said the Afghan Taliban had helped broker the deal between the rival commanders.
Rehman told the BBC he endorsed Hakimullah's appointment as top commander but a security analyst said he doubted their rivalry was over.

"I don't think this power-sharing can work for long. Their differences can re-emerge any time," Mahmood Shah, a former security chief of the ethnic Pashtun areas on the Afghan border.

Shah also said al Qaeda would determine if the TTP would shift their focus to Afghanistan. "It's not their choice. Al Qaeda utilised Baitullah to get him engaged with Pakistani forces and they will continue the same with his successor," he said.

Another analyst, Rahimullah Yusufzai, said under the power-sharing agreement Rehman appeared stronger. "Baitullah's fighters, money and weapons will stay with Rehman. Hakimullah will have some say but it looks like the main power will rest with Rehman," he said.

An intelligence official described Hakimullah, who is believed to be in his 30s, as "an inexperienced, aggressive, at times stupid chap who believes in pomp and show".

Rehman, a former teacher said to be of the same age, was "a sober, wise and experienced man who acted as the right-hand man of Baitullah," said the official who declined to be identified.