DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – The Pakistani Taliban on Monday denied reports that their leader died from injuries sustained in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January, saying they would try to provide proof he is alive in the next few days.
The denial came a day after a state television report of Hakimullah Mehsud's death set off a flurry of speculation and prompted the government to announce it was investigating. The state TV report was apparently based on witnesses who said they had attended his funeral last week.
Meanwhile, three soldiers and 22 militants were killed in renewed clashes in Bajur tribal region that were triggered by an insurgent attack on a checkpoint, said local government chief Abdul Malik. The army deployed jets, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery in the region, which was declared free of militants after an operation in 2008.
The Pakistani Taliban issued similar denials after former leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike in August, only admitting his death after the group chose Hakimullah Mehsud as his successor almost three weeks later.
Hakimullah Mehsud's death would inflict major damage against an Al Qaeda ally already under pressure from U.S. and Pakistani attacks, but would be unlikely to deal a killer blow to an organization blamed for scores of bloody bombings.
A close aide to Mehsud called the report of the militant chief's death "government propaganda" and said he was "doing well."
"We will try in a day or two to give you proof that he is alive," the senior Taliban commander told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution.
Verifying developments in the tribal area where Mehsud is reported to have died is difficult. The Pakistan army and the United States are believed to have a network of informants there, but many places are under effective militant control. There are few independent journalists working there.
The New York Times and the Washington Post quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying Sunday they were more than 90 percent certain Mehsud had died. The Long War Journal, a U.S. Web site that closely monitors the American missile campaign in the northwest, quoted U.S. intelligence officials as saying there was no indication he had been killed.
The Pakistani army launched a major operation in the Pakistani Taliban's main stronghold of South Waziristan in mid-October that retook the area but failed to kill many of the movement's leaders.
Pakistan's army chief said Monday the offensive had cleared the area of militants, but did not refer to the reports of Mehsud's death in a rare briefing for foreign journalists.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said his army was at full "stretch," suggesting no new operations would be launched any time soon, and offered to help America train the Afghan army — an apparent gesture of friendship in an often tense relationship. The U.S. is eager for Islamabad to pursue militants on Pakistani soil, where Washington says they plot assaults on American troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Taliban commanders Waliur Rehman and Qari Hussein are seen as the two most likely successors to replace Mehsud, if he was killed. Hussein is known as the group's chief trainer of suicide bombers. Rehman was the commander in South Waziristan. In remarks to the media, they have shown themselves to be just as committed to war against the Pakistani state and the United States as Mehsud.
While considered distinct organizations, the Pakistan Taliban are closely allied with the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are being killed by insurgents in greater numbers than ever before. Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, also believed to be hiding out in Pakistan's northwest, is a supporter.
Mehsud's importance for the United States was highlighted last month when he appeared in a video beside the Jordanian man who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide bombing at a remote base in Afghanistan. The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, said he carried out the attack in retribution for the death of former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah.
Hakimullah has been reported dead at least twice before, once in an alleged power struggle following the death of Baitullah. If the Taliban do not acknowledge their leader's death, DNA testing will likely be needed to confirm it.
Pakistani intelligence officials had said that Hakimullah was targeted in a U.S. drone strike against a meeting of militant commanders in South Waziristan on Jan. 14, triggering rumors he had been injured or killed. The militant chief issued an audiotape after the strike directly denying the rumors, and his voice sounded strong.
Hakimullah, who has the reputation as a particularly ruthless militant, took over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban soon after Baitullah's death. The Pakistani Taliban stepped up its attacks after the army invaded its stronghold of South Waziristan in mid-October. More than 600 people have been killed in attacks throughout the country since the ground offensive was launched.