ISLAMABAD – Pakistani authorities are increasingly convinced that the notorious head of the country's Taliban movement was killed in a CIA missile strike, the military said Sunday, as reports emerged of an apparently bloody battle for his succession.
Claims and counterclaims about whether Baitullah Mehsud is alive or dead have swirled since the Wednesday drone strike on his father-in-law's house in Pakistan's rugged, lawless tribal belt. Government and intelligence officials, as well as some Taliban commanders, have said all indicators point to him being dead, but other Taliban commanders have vehemently denied that.
Further muddying the waters, there were conflicting reports that a major fight had broken out between rival Taliban factions during a meeting, or shura, to select a replacement for Mehsud, and that one or two of the most likely contenders — Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman — had either been killed or wounded.
If true, the gunfight lends credence to the assertion that Mehsud, considered Pakistan's most dangerous man, had indeed been killed.
"Multiple sources are now confirming he's dead," including at least two Taliban commanders, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press. He said the reports of infighting were "one of the biggest, latest indicators."
"Why there is a fight, why this fight for succession? These are very strong indicators which are leading towards reasonable confirmation that he is killed," Abbas said of Mehsud.
He said authorities were unable at present to confirm what exactly had occurred in the Taliban meeting in the lawless Waziristan region where the gunbattle is believed to have broken out.
"The reports are coming that there has been infighting. Who has been killed and who has been injured has yet to be confirmed, it is yet to be established," he said.
Interior Minister Rahman Malik said late Saturday that authorities had information that a fight had broken out between the groups of Hakimullah and Rehman, and that one of the two was dead.
Yet Taliban commander, Noor Sayed, denied to an AP reporter that there had been any quarrel between rival Taliban factions. He said he spoke to Rehman on Saturday night and that he had not been injured.
A senior government official, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the situation, also cast doubt on the claim.
He said there were reports of a clash among Taliban guards at a meeting Saturday evening and indications some people had been wounded, but there was no credible information to suggest any of the Taliban leaders were among them.
The meeting was reportedly held somewhere in the lawless, rugged tribal region of Waziristan, an area off limits to journalists, and the claims were impossible to verify independently.
Any succession battle for the top slot in Pakistan's Taliban was always likely to be brutal. Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is not a single, cohesive group. Rather, it is more a loose alliance of tribal groups that often have disputes and power struggles between each other. So taking out the man who coordinated the factions could lead to fierce rivalry over who will succeed him.
It could be in the interests of top commanders to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who will replace him.
Three Taliban commanders — Hakimullah, Qari Hussain, who is known for training homicide bombers, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar — called AP reporters Saturday and insisted their leader was alive. They provided no proof, although they said there would be evidence in coming days.
"The reports about his death are false," Hussain said. "I will take revenge against the Pakistan government for celebrating the false news of Baitullah Mehsud's death."
On Sunday, a Taliban commander from neighboring Afghanistan, Maulvi Sangin, claimed to an AP reporter that he had met with Mehsud himself on Thursday and that he was alive and well.
Yet on Friday, Mehsud's aide Kafayat Ullah told the AP that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives in his stronghold in South Waziristan. Baz Mohammad, a commander of a rival Taliban faction, told AP television that he had spoken with Mehsud's brother-in-law, who had said Mehsud, his second wife and four aides had been killed in the missile strike.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions, was skeptical about the Taliban's assertions.
"I think that this denial from them ... doesn't appear to be holding much water," Shah said, noting the Taliban had waited for two days after news began to leak out that Mehsud was probably dead to deny it.
"It should have come earlier and ... much stronger. For example, if he was alive he could have spoken himself," Shah said.
"There is, I think, a struggle going on for the leadership, and Hakimullah Mehsud is one of the contenders," he added.
Without irrefutable evidence either way it was impossible to determine whether the man Pakistan considered its No. 1 threat was dead.
Last year, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said Mehsud had died of kidney failure after diabetes complications. But a Taliban spokesman and a doctor denied the report the same day and Mehsud re-emerged.