MIR ALI, Pakistan – The Pakistani Taliban said Tuesday that there is no need to release proof that the group's leader is alive to refute reports that he died from injuries sustained in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January.
The comments by Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq — a reversal from remarks the day before — could fuel speculation that militant chief Hakimullah Mehsud has in fact died and that the group is stalling to give it time to determine a successor.
The CIA has rained down missiles on northwestern Pakistan after a bomber killed seven of the U.S. intelligence agency's employees late last year in Afghanistan. The barrage continued Tuesday when suspected U.S. drones fired 17 missiles at compounds and bunkers used by militants in the northwest, killing 14 suspected fighters, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
Mehsud's death would be an important victory against an al-Qaida ally but would be unlikely to deal the organization a killer blow.
Speculation about the Pakistani Taliban leader's fate resembles that when his predecessor was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area. The Pakistani Taliban denied his death for almost three weeks, only admitting it after Mehsud was chosen as his heir.
"We don't feel any need presently to release a video, but whenever we feel a need, we will do so," Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The spokesman's comments came a day after a close aide to Mehsud told the AP that the militant group would try to provide proof in a day or two that its leader was alive. The senior Taliban commander spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution.
Tariq called Sunday's Pakistani television report that first announced Mehsud's death propaganda and said the leader "is perfectly well, alive and staying at a safe location."
The state TV report was apparently based on witnesses who said they attended Mehsud's funeral last week in the Orakzai tribal area.
Tariq said Mehsud would not appear before the media to prove he is alive because it could endanger him.
"We are not going to fall prey to this trap and make our leader vulnerable to the spy network, and secondly, the leadership council has restricted the leader from speaking to the media for certain reasons," said Tariq.
Army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas said Monday that state agencies were still investigating reports of Mehsud's death, saying they were apparently linked to a missile strike on Jan. 17 in South Waziristan that was earlier reported to have killed 12 people.
The drones that struck Tuesday fired missiles at four compounds and two vehicles in the Degan area of North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's tribal region dominated by militants launching cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The U.S. is also likely eager to get confirmation of Mehsud's death. The militant is believed to have played a key role in a suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan late last year that killed seven agency employees.
But getting accurate information from the tribal area where Mehsud is reported to have died is difficult.
The Pakistan army has a network of informants there, but many places are under effective militant control. There are few independent journalists working there.
Taliban commanders Waliur Rehman and Qari Hussain are seen as the two most likely successors to replace Mehsud. Hussain is known as the group's chief trainer of suicide bombers. Rehman was the commander in South Waziristan.
The army launched a major ground offensive against the Pakistani Taliban's main stronghold in South Waziristan in October, but many of the fighters are believed to have escaped to other areas in the northwest.
Pakistani troops killed eight Islamist militants Tuesday in the Bajur tribal area, a region where insurgents are staging a comeback after a military operation there was declared a success, local government official Abdul Malik said.
The clashes in the Bajur region illustrate the tenacity of Islamist militants in northwest Pakistan, most of whom are allied with those waging war against U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Bajur was declared free of militants a year ago after a military offensive, but in recent days government officials say security forces have killed dozens of insurgents there. A militant suicide attack there killed 16 people on Saturday.