ISLAMABAD – Security forces captured the Pakistani Taliban's top spokesman, and he acknowledged the death of the group's leader in a recent U.S. missile strike, officials said Tuesday — further signs the militants are in disarray since the American attack.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they were almost certain that the chief, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in the Aug. 5 strike, but at least three Taliban operatives, including the detainee, Maulvi Umar, had called media organizations following the attack to say he was still alive.
Umar's comments were relayed by an intelligence official who took part in the questioning. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The spokesman's capture was the second arrest of a prominent Taliban figure in 24 hours, dealing another blow to the network blamed for scores of bloody attacks on Western and government targets gnawing at the stability of the nuclear-armed country.
As the official spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella organization formed in 2007 for various regional and tribal militant movements, Umar frequently called journalists to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
As well as being the movement's mouthpiece, Umar was an influential aide to Mehsud and ranking member of the Taliban.
Umar initially operated relatively openly — a reflection of the former government's reluctance to tackle the group.
Reporters had his home and cell phone numbers. Umar would occasionally summon Pakistani reporters stationed in Khar, the main city in Bajur tribal region, for news conferences at his headquarters in nearby Mamund town.
But after the army began an offensive in April, Umar changed phone numbers frequently. He never appeared in public, but still continued to telephone the media with messages from the Taliban leadership.
He was captured along with two associates in a village in the Mohmand tribal region Monday night while he was traveling in a car to South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold, said Javed Khan, a local government administrator.
"Maulvi Umar is in our custody, and he is being questioned," Khan told The Associated Press without giving any further details.
Earlier, three intelligence officials said local tribal elders assisted troops in locating Umar in the village of Khawazeo. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
The announcement of Umar's capture came a day after police arrested militant commander Qari Saifullah, another close Mehsud aide, as he was being treated in a private hospital in Islamabad, the capital.
Saifullah, who is reportedly linked to Al Qaeda, told police he had been wounded in an American missile strike in South Waziristan, said two police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. It was unclear if it was the same strike believed to have killed Mehsud.
Saifullah appeared Tuesday before a special anti-terrorism court along with Zaid Ikram, an aide arrested along with him. Both were ordered held for four days for investigation, prosecutor Raja Yaseen said, but he would not elaborate on what charges they would face.
The two were being questioned for possible roles in attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan as well as terrorist attacks in Pakistan, said Islamabad police operations chief Tahir Alam Khan.
Saifullah is affiliated to Harkat Jihad-e-Islami, an Al Qaeda-linked group that recruits militants to fight foreign forces in Afghanistan, Khan said. Ikram — who is Saifullah's younger brother — played a major role in a bomb attack on Islamabad's Marriott hotel in 2004, in which one guard was killed in the parking lot, he said.
Attacks have continued despite military operations against militants.
On Tuesday night, a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a paramilitary checkpoint in North Waziristan, killing three troops and wounding another three, intelligence officials said.
The three officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the attack occurred about five miles west of the town of Mir Ali, which lies in the lawless northwestern tribal belt near the border with Afghanistan.
Separately, the military said security forces had arrested 34 suspected Taliban militants, including a local commander, in several search operations in northwestern Pakistan, and that another 10 had handed themselves in to a pro-government militia.
Pakistan's Western allies are desperate to see a crackdown on militants threatening the country as well as the success of the U.S. and NATO-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan, where violence is surging ahead of elections later this week.
Visiting U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on Sunday praised recent gains against the militants, including the reported death of Mehsud and the retaking of the Swat Valley, 100 miles from Islamabad, from the Taliban in July.