ISLAMABAD – Pakistan is worried that Al Qaeda is trying to install its own "chief terrorist" as the head of Pakistan's Taliban following the apparent killing of the group's leader in a CIA missile strike, a top official said Monday.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told BBC radio that all the "credible information" points to Baitullah Mehsud having died in the Wednesday attack, despite claims to the contrary by some Taliban leaders.
The Pakistan Taliban appear in disarray, Malik said, amid unconfirmed reports of deadly infighting over who should replace Mehsud.
"It will take some time for them to regroup," Malik said. "The other thing which is a bit worrying is that Al Qaeda is getting grouped in the same place, and now they are trying to find out somebody to install him as the leader, as the chief terrorist, in that area."
Malik said Pakistan was taking "all those measures which are necessary" to respond to the scenario.
The 30-something Mehsud grew in power largely because of his links to the predominantly Arab terror network, analysts say. Mehsud and his deputies controlled swaths of Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border, a region where Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding.
Al Qaeda is believed to have provided guidance and funding to Mehsud, who in turn could provide suicide bombers and other assets to carry out attacks throughout Pakistan.
Malik did not specify which candidate might be Al Qaeda's preference, though it is highly unlikely that Pakistan Taliban fighters would agree to an Arab candidate or anyone not of the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates the tribal belt.
American and Pakistani government and intelligence officials, as well as some Taliban commanders and at least one rival militant, have said Mehsud likely died in Wednesday's drone strike on his father-in-law's house in the South Waziristan tribal area. President Barack Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, said Sunday the U.S. was 90 percent confident Mehsud had been killed.
But three Taliban commanders — Hakimullah, Qari Hussain, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar — have insisted Mehsud is alive.
Neither side has produced any concrete evidence, and the claims were impossible to verify independently.
Conflicting reports of whether a major fight had broken out between rival Taliban factions during a meeting, or shura, to select Mehsud's replacement have also emerged.
Some reports said one or both of the leading contenders — Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman — were killed or wounded. But one Taliban commander, Noor Sayed, denied there had been any disagreement.
Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is a loose alliance of tribal groups that often have disputes and power struggles, so removing the man who coordinated the factions could lead to intense rivalry over who would succeed him.
It could be in the interests of top commanders to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who would replace him.
Two intelligence officials and two Taliban sources told an AP reporter a series of shuras were held in various locations in South Waziristan, a rugged, lawless area largely off-limits to journalists.
They said while the meetings were attended mainly by local commanders in the initial days, Sunday's shura also attracted Afghan Taliban representatives and Arab fighters eager to resolve differences over Mehsud's succession.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Two separate incidents Monday underscored that militancy in Pakistan is not dead even if Mehsud may be.
Three suspected militants were killed by troops retaliating after a remote-controlled bomb exploded near a security checkpoint in North Waziristan, two other intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
The army confirmed the clash but said casualties were unconfirmed.
A roadside bomb detonated near a local government official's vehicle in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest. City police chief Safwat Ghayur said the official was safe, but that his guards began shooting after the blast, killing a passer-by and wounding another.