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US 'does not know' if Mehsud is dead

The United States administration does not know if the leader of the Pakistani Taliban was killed in a US bombing raid this week, a senior diplomat said on Saturday.

world Updated: Jan 16, 2010 19:18 IST

The United States administration does not know if the leader of the Pakistani Taliban was killed in a US bombing raid this week, a senior diplomat said on Saturday.

Richard Holbrooke, Washington's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said he could not confirm if Hakimullah Mehsud was among those killed in Thursday's raid in Pakistan's lawless northwest tribal belt.

"I've heard every conceivable version of what has happened and I don't know," said Holbrooke.

The Pakistani Taliban released an audio recording allegedly made Friday of Mehsud denying he had been killed in the raid, as the military investigated the reports.

Missiles fired from an unmanned US aircraft killed at least 15 Islamist insurgents at a training camp, and security officials said Mehsud may have been among the dead.

"If he is still alive he is one of the worst people on earth, one of the most vicious," Holbrooke told reporters in Kabul.

"I don't know what his status is, we've heard all the rumours and we're just going to sit back and let it develop. But I do want to stress how strongly we feel about this man and this group," he said.

Reporters familiar with Mehsud said the voice on the recording seemed to be his, but there was no mention of dates or the bombing alleged to have killed him, making it impossible to confirm if it was recorded before or after Thursday's strike.

Mehsud assumed leadership of the group blamed for the deaths of thousands of people in attacks across Pakistan after his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in August last year.

The group denied Baitullah Mehsud's death for weeks, apparently amid fierce infighting over his successor.

The US strike hit in a remote and mountainous area between the districts of North and South Waziristan, and the military's spokesman said access to the Taliban-controlled area was one hurdle in obtaining information.

More than 700 people have been killed in around 80 US drone strikes since August 2008, with a surge in 2009 under President Barack Obama. Eight drone strikes have hit the northwest this month alone.

The bombings fuel anti-American sentiment in Muslim Pakistan, and the Taliban repeatedly vow to avenge the raids.