DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Taliban chief, who has led a violent campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations against Pakistan’s government, has been killed in a CIA missile strike and his body buried, three Pakistani intelligence officials said today.
The officials said Baitullah Mehsud was killed in Wednesday’s missile attack on the home of his father-in-law and that his body was buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan, not far from the site of the missile strike.
But one of the three officials said no intelligence agent had actually seen the remains.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
One official said he had seen a classified intelligence report stating Mehsud was dead and buried, but agents had not seen the body as the area was under Taliban control.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he could confirm the death of Mehsud’s wife but not of the Taliban leader himself, although information pointed in that direction.
“I can confirm to the extent that his wife is dead, and probably one of his brothers, but we do not have any … evidence that he’s dead,” Malik told reporters outside Parliament. “Yes, lot of information is pouring in from that area that he’s dead, but I’m unable to confirim unless I have solid evidence.”
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said “about 70 percent” of the information pointed to Mehsud being dead, but authorities had not yet been able to cross-check this. He said authorities had not recovered a body.
Malik, in his statements outside Parliament, urged Mehsud’s associates to abandon their leaders and to “serve Islam in true meaning and serve Pakistan as this country has given them refuge.”
Malik said no Pakistani military operation was going on in South Waziristan, and only selective targets were being hit. Mehsud, however, was believed to have been killed in an American strike, the intelligence officials said.
“I have already said that it is a targeted operation, it is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mehsud’s group and it will continue till Baitullah Mehsud’s group is eliminated forever,” he said.
If confirmed, Mehsud’s demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Mehsud has al-Qaida connections and has been suspected in the killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan views him as its top internal threat and has been preparing an offensive against him. The U.S. sees him as a danger to the war effort in Afghanistan, largely because of the threat he is believed to pose to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The U.S. government was also looking into the reports of Mehsud’s death, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official.
For years, the U.S. has considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al-Qaida, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
That view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud’s power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilize the U.S. ally and threaten the entire region.