Local intelligence officials acknowledged on Saturday that a CIA missile strike that killed Pakistan's Taliban chief was carried out with Islamabad's help, indicating growing coordination between the two countries on battling militants despite Pakistan's official disapproval of the strikes.
Meanwhile, Taliban fighters mulling who will succeed Baitullah Mehsud as their top commander had yet to announce a decision three days after his death, a possible sign that a power struggle is shaping up among his followers.
Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives on Wednesday in his stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal region, his militant aide, Kafayat Ullah, told The Associated Press. Pakistani and US officials said they were getting the same reports and were reasonably confident in them, but did not have forensic evidence such as a body for irrefutable confirmation.
Pakistan considered the al-Qaida-linked Mehsud its No 1 internal threat. He was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide attacks across Pakistan.
The US initially viewed him as less of a threat than other Taliban fighters, mainly because he tended to go after Pakistani targets instead of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. That view appeared to change as Mehsud grew in strength. Two Pakistani intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, said the CIA launched the missiles after Pakistan passed along a confirmed report that the militant chief was staying at his father-in-law's home.
A video of the attack was shared with Pakistani authorities. In it, Mehsud's vehicle is seen parked inside a sprawling compound and Mehsud was also visible, said one of the intelligence officials. The official declined to give more specifics, such as exactly where Mehsud was, but said his body was destroyed. Pakistan has routinely condemned the American missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and anger the local population, especially when civilians are killed. Analysts suspect that public stance is simply a face-saving measure for the government, and that it secretly cooperating in the attacks.
In any case, the strike that killed Mehsud appears to be a huge boon for the Pakistanis, and it might nudge them to go after militant leaders the US sees as a greater threat to its interests in neighboring Afghanistan.
Details about the Mehsud succession talks were murky. Those involved in the meeting, or shura, in South Waziristan have cut off their communications, likely out of fear their gathering could be targeted by another missile.
The exact location of the meeting also was kept secret, though a tribesman said it appeared to be somewhere in the Ladha area. Dozens of militants, including Arabs, were heading to the gathering, but a large area was cordoned off and locals were restricted in their movements, said the tribesman, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter and fear for his life.
Potential successors to Mehsud include his deputy Hakimullah, as well as two other aides, Azmat Ullah and Waliur Rehman. Interior Minister Rehman Malik also named Qari Hussain, known for training suicide bombers, as a possible heir.
The two intelligence officials said Mehsud's deputies were likely to select Waliur Rehman as their new commander because Mehsud had suggested his name as his successor. Hakimullah and Qari Hussain, however, remain strong contenders - both known for being ruthless.