PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The deputy head of the Pakistani Taliban announced Wednesday that he was temporarily assuming leadership of the militant group because its chief, whom Washington and Islamabad have said was almost certainly killed by a recent missile strike, was unwell.
The announcement by Maulvi Faqir Mohammad is another sign that Taliban commanders are jockeying for power after the reported death of Baitullah Mehsud in an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike in northwestern Pakistan's tribal belt. A captured Taliban spokesman reportedly acknowledged to authorities that Mehsud was dead, but other commanders have insisted he is alive.
Mohammad also claimed Mehsud was alive, but said he was too ill to lead Pakistan's Taliban.
"I was the deputy leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban and now since Baitullah Mehsud is unable to perform as head of the organization due to health reasons and unable to come on the foreground, I am announcing I am assuming the role of acting chief," Mohammad told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He stressed his appointment was only temporary, and said the final decision on who would replace Mehsud would rest with a 42-member Taliban council, known as a shura.
Two of the top contenders are considered to be leading commanders Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, and Mohammad described them as "both capable and energetic leaders."
Pakistan's Taliban is more a loose alliance of disparate groups and tribal factions rather than one cohesive group, and government and intelligence officials have been saying that the they are now embroiled in a bitter leadership struggle.
"No one can deny the struggle and sacrifices of the Mehsud Taliban, but the Taliban of other areas also rendered sacrifices and have done great struggle," Mohammad said.
He also said the recently arrested Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Umar, was being replaced by Muslim Khan, who was until now the militant's spokesman for the Swat Valley region in northern Pakistan. An intelligence official said Tuesday that Umar had acknowledged under questioning that Mehsud was dead.
Mohammad claimed that even before his arrest on Monday, Umar had already decided to step down as spokesman because he had been experiencing communications problems in the Bajur tribal region where he operates.