ISLAMABAD – Intercepted militant radio communications indicate the leader of the Pakistani Taliban may have been killed in a recent U.S. drone strike, Pakistani intelligence officials said Sunday. A Taliban official denied that.
The report coincided with sectarian violence — a bomb blast in eastern Pakistan that killed 14 people in a Shiite religious procession.
The claim that the Pakistani Taliban chief was killed came from officials who said they intercepted a number of Taliban radio conversations. In about a half a dozen intercepts, the militants discussed whether their chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed on Jan. 12 in the North Waziristan tribal area. Some militants confirmed Mehsud was dead, and one criticized others for talking about the issue over the radio.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Asimullah Mehsud denied the group's leader was killed and said he was not in the area where the drone strike occurred.
In early 2010, both Pakistani and American officials said they believed a missile strike had killed Hakimullah Mehsud along the border of North and South Waziristan. They were proved wrong when videos appeared showing him still alive.
The Pakistani Taliban is linked to attacks against U.S. targets. They trained the Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in New York City's Times Square in 2010 and is tied to a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA agents at an Afghan base in 2009.
There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday's bombing that killed 14 people during a Shiite observance in Punjab province in the east — the latest of a series of sectarian attacks in volatile Pakistan.
Hundreds of Pakistani Shiites gathered in the town of Khanpur in Punjab province for a traditional procession to mark the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered seventh-century figure.
The explosion went off as the mourners left a mosque, said District Police Chief Sohail Chatta. The bomb appeared to have been planted ahead of time in the path of the procession, he said.
The Pakistani Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups have in the past claimed responsibility for the bombings of Shiite religious sites and ceremonies. Many Sunni extremists in Pakistan regard Shiites as heretics.
The Taliban and other groups have carried out hundreds of bombings over the last five years that have killed thousands of Pakistani troops and civilians as part of a campaign to install a hard-line Islamist government.
The attacks are so common that the country's interior minister in December actually thanked the Taliban for acting on what he said was a "request" not to stage attacks during the Shiite rituals of Ashoura that month.
Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah said police investigators were still examining the area of Sunday's bombing for clues. Security was provided for the procession, but it was breached, Sanaullah said.
The continuing strikes by presumed religious extremists come during a political crisis that pits the Pakistani civilian government against the military, sparking rumors of an impending coup.
Last week the military warned the government of possible "grievous consequences" ahead, and President Asif Ali Zardari took a one-day trip to Dubai that renewed speculation that he might flee the country.
Analysts say the military may be looking for the Supreme Court to push out Zardari rather than risk an outright takeover.