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Pakistani Taliban leader killed by U.S. drone strikes

Death preceded Afghanistan negotiations

ISLAMABAD – CIA drones on Friday killed the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, when they fired on a compound in the northwestern tribal agency of North Waziristan, according to Pakistani security officials and two commanders of the extremist group. At least two other people were killed.

The loss of Mehsud dealt a serious blow to the Terik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis in a campaign of attacks and suicide bombings aimed at replacing the secular government with Islamist rule. The group also provided support to a Pakistani American convicted of a failed May 2010 car bombing in New York’s Times Square.

Senior Pakistani officials condemned the operation because it occurred a day before the government was to formally invite the insurgents to hold peace talks. Several experts, however, said that the strikes wouldn’t have taken place without the approval, if not the participation, of the country’s powerful military.

“This wouldn’t have happened … without acquiescence or direct support” from the military and the army-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, said Thomas Lynch, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington.

Despite the setback caused by Mehsud’s death, the Taliban quickly named a replacement, and the government issued a nationwide security alert in anticipation of the kind of retaliatory attacks that followed previous drone killings of top militants.

In Washington, a CIA spokesman declined – as is the agency’s standard practice – to comment on the strike.

The Obama administration has admitted that the United States uses drones to conduct targeted killing operations against al-Qaida militants and other terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal area and in Yemen. But the administration has refused to make public the explicit legal justification for the strikes, and civil and human rights groups charge that the operations outside active battlefields violate international law.

Mehsud died about 4:30 p.m. local time when two CIA drones released Hellfire missiles into a car he was exiting after it entered a large residential compound in Dande Derpa Khel, a village about three miles north of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, close to the border with Afghanistan, security officials said.

The compound, which was built earlier this year, was sometimes used by Mehsud as an office and residence, they said.

The Taliban’s official spokesman, who uses the pseudonym Shahidullah Shahid, denied Mehsud was dead. But two Taliban commanders reached by telephone in Miranshah said he’d died before he could be brought to a militant-run hospital in the town. His funeral was scheduled for 3 p.m. today, they said.

Local residents told Pakistan cable television news channels that Mehsud either had returned from a conference of Taliban faction leaders at a nearby mosque, or arrived to chair such a meeting at the compound, when the drone strikes took place.

Local journalists said that Friday’s strike also killed Mehsud’s driver, identified as Abdullah Behar Mehsud, and a bodyguard named Tariq Mehsud. The area was sealed off by militants shortly after the attack, preventing further identification.