KABUL, Afghanistan – In the power vacuum created by the apparent death of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, a gunbattle broke out Saturday between Taliban leaders vying to seize his mantle in the tribal borderlands, Pakistani officials said, the first indications of a struggle that could prompt fighters to move across the border into Afghanistan.
The effect of the apparent death of Mehsud, who deployed his fighters mainly against Pakistani targets, “could be to free up militants to come into Afghanistan,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in that country.
“Baitullah Mehsud was putting such pressure on the government of Pakistan that I don’t know if his successor or successors will do the same,” McChrystal said in an interview Saturday, emphasizing that it is difficult at this point to predict how Mehsud’s fighters will react.
For at least the second consecutive day since the U.S. missile strike Wednesday that Pakistani and American officials say they believe killed Mehsud, Taliban fighters gathered in the South Waziristan tribal district Saturday to choose new leadership.
During the meeting in the Sara Rogha area, an argument and shooting broke out between two potential successors to Mehsud, Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, according to two Pakistani officials.
“The exchange of fire, reports suggest, took place between two important contenders for the Taliban chief’s slot,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in an interview. “According to information, one of them has been killed, but as of now we can’t say who it was.”
A government official in South Waziristan said intelligence reports indicate that the man killed Saturday was Hakimullah Mehsud, a close aide to Baitullah Mehsud who has been linked to attacks on NATO convoys. However, the Associated Press reported receiving a call from Hakimullah Mehsud on Saturday morning.
In another potential sign of disarray within the Pakistani Taliban ranks, some fighters called reporters Saturday insisting that Baitullah Mehsud was alive.
A Taliban fighter called a Washington Post reporter to say he was 100 percent sure of it, although he could not provide evidence.
A former National Assembly member from South Waziristan, Maulana Mirajuddin, also said he received a call from a “very trusted associate” claiming that Mehsud was alive.
However, another leader of the Mehsud tribe from the area said such assertions were merely attempts to sow confusion, adding that “the Taliban are trying to hush up the matter to keep the loosely connected Pakistani Taliban intact.”