SARAROGHA, Pakistan – The Pakistani Taliban's new leader met with reporters in the country's tribal areas for the first time since winning control of the militants and vowed to retaliate against the U.S. and Pakistan for drone attacks along the Afghan border.
The appearance by Hakimullah Mehsud ended any speculation that he was killed in a leadership battle within the militant group sparked by the August slaying of his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud in a missile strike.
Mehsud, flanked by other Taliban commanders in a show of unity, spoke to a small group of reporters Sunday on condition the interview only be published Monday.
Mehsud said his group would avenge the killing of Baitullah Mehsud and strike back at Pakistan and the U.S. for the increasing number of drone attacks in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Unmanned drones have carried out more than 70 missile strikes in northwestern Pakistan over the last year in a covert program, killing several top militant commanders along with sympathizers and civilians. The Pakistani government publicly protests the attacks but is widely believed to sanction them and provide intelligence for at least some.
American officials have said they are considering a strategy of intensified drone attacks combined with the deployment of special operations forces against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets on the Pakistani side of the border — part of an alternative to sending more troops to Afghanistan in what is an increasingly unpopular war.
As part of the offensive against the Taliban leadership, Mehsud's brother, Kalimullah, was killed last month. Analysts say the group is struggling to regroup from the attacks on its leaders. Pakistani officials had speculated that Hakimullah had been killed in a recent shootout.
Mehsud accused Pakistan of doing the bidding of the West and pledged to bring Islamic rule to the country.