A tribal leader and top rival to Pakistan’s feared Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was shot dead on Tuesday, police said, as the army readied for an assault on Mehsud’s wild northwest base.
Qari Zainuddin, a young rising militant leader who was increasingly critical of his clansman Mehsud’s use of suicide bombings targeting civilians, was killed at a house in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan.
The assassination comes a week after the army said it was extending a northwest offensive against militants into the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border -- a campaign Zainuddin told local media he would support.
Also Tuesday, a suspected US missile strike hit a Mehsud stronghold, killing six people in the tribal South Waziristan region, where Pakistani fighter jets have also been pounding militant targets ahead of a full-scale offensive.
“According to preliminary reports, the tribal warlord (Zainuddin) was asleep in his office after morning prayers when one of his accomplices opened fire on him,” local police official Salah-ud-din Khan told AFP.
Khan said Zainuddin -- who was reported to be between 26 and 31 -- was pronounced dead at a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan town, which is in the district of the same name bordering South Waziristan.
Another local police official Ghulam Rabbani said: “Qari Zainuddin has been assassinated.”
Police and intelligence officials identified the shooter as a guard named Gulbudin Mehsud, who escaped after the attack.
Officials gave no motive for the killing, but Zainuddin’s aide Baz Mohammad, who witnessed the attack, told AFP that the gunman was “an agent of Baitullah Mehsud” acting on the orders of the Al-Qaeda-linked warlord.
“We were resting in a room after pre-dawn prayers when suddenly firing started. I saw a man... his name is Gulbudin, firing on us,” Mohammad said.
Analysts said Mehsud would be keen to demonstrate his hold on the tribal areas amid splits in Taliban factions that the military was keen to exploit.
“This shows that Baitullah Mehsud is still entrenched in South Waziristan and he is capable of eliminating his rivals,” said Hasan Askari, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“This also means that his power and military manoeuvrability has not been reduced by the initiation of army operations in South Waziristan.”
Pakistani troops are wrapping up an almost two-month-long operation against Taliban rebels in northwest Swat valley, and are preparing to launch a second front against Mehsud and his network along the rugged tribal belt.
The army said in its daily update Tuesday they were in the final phases of the Swat campaign, while it said militants had attacked government forces in the tribal zones of Bajaur and South Waziristan.
Security officials meanwhile said a US drone fired missiles at Taliban buildings in South Waziristan, with six suspected militants killed.
An army spokesman on Monday refused to say when the full onslaught in the tribal belt would begin, but said the operation was against Mehsud and his network “which is involved in most of the terrorist attacks in the country.”
South Waziristan is Mehsud’s stronghold, and Washington alleges that Al-Qaeda fighters are in the region plotting attacks on Western targets.
The US has called Mehsud “a key Al-Qaeda facilitator in the tribal areas”, and put a five-million-dollar bounty on his head.
In Pakistan’s southern hub Karachi on Tuesday, police arrested five men suspected of committing robberies and kidnappings to raise funds for Mehsud, police official Raja Umer Khitab said.
Zainuddin spilt from Mehsud’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan group nine months ago, and was quoted in The News newspaper last week saying: “It is time to eliminate Baitullah now, otherwise no such opportunity would come in future.”
Analysts have said that the military would likely try to fan the rivalries among the Mehsud tribe to gain allies before any assault in the tribal belt.
“He is going to be a tough and difficult opponent for the military... but the army can exploit this situation,” said Askari.
“This assassination will cause increased conflict between Baitullah and the followers of the assassinated leader.”