ISLAMABAD – Senior Taliban commanders denied that their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in a CIA missile strike, while conflicting reports emerged late Saturday of a clash between rival Taliban factions during a meeting to chose a successor.
Interior Minister Rahman Malik said authorities had received information about a fight breaking out during a meeting, or shura, between groups led by Hakimullah, one of the Taliban's most powerful commanders, and Waliur Rehman. Both are believed to be top contenders to replace Mehsud should reports of his death in Wednesday's strike prove true.
"We had the information that one of them is dead. So the information is being verified. We need to see the dead bodies, we need to do some DNA, we need to have something solid," Malik told local television.
He said the incident occurred Friday. However, Hakimullah spoke to an AP reporter on Saturday morning, when he called to claim that Mehsud was alive.
A senior government official, who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, 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 that there was no credible information to suggest any of the Taliban leaders were among them.
Another Taliban commander, Noor Sayed, denied to The Associated Press that there had been any quarrel between rival Taliban factions. He said he had spoken to Waliur Rehman himself and that he was not injured.
Nevertheless, local TV stations were running stories saying that either Hakimullah or Waliur Rehman, or both, had been killed.
The meeting was reportedly being held somewhere in the lawless, rugged tribal region of Waziristan, an area off limits to journalists, and the claims were impossible to verify independently.
The conflicting reports came as Taliban commanders, including Hakimullah, insisted Mehsud, suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide attacks across Pakistan, was alive despite assertions he was killed during a missile strike on his father-in-law's house in South Waziristan.
On Friday, four intelligence officials said they had information that the Taliban leader had been killed in Wednesday's missile strike, but acknowledged that authorities did not have his body as proof. Intelligence officials said Taliban commanders were holding a meeting to decide a successor. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Mehsud's aide Kafayat Ullah told the AP on Friday that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives in his stronghold in South Waziristan, while on Saturday, Malik told Pakistani television there were "confirmed reports" that Mehsud was dead. He did not elaborate.
Yet three Taliban fighters — Hakimullah, Qari Hussain, who is known for training suicide bombers, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar — called AP reporters and insisted their leader was alive.
"The reports about his death are false," Hussain said, adding that "I will take revenge against the Pakistan government for celebrating the false news of Baitullah Mehsud's death."
He said he met with Mehsud on Saturday and that he was well.
But the Taliban commanders offered no proof, and the claim could be aimed at keeping militants unified until a successor could be found.
Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is more a loose alliance of groups operating in Pakistan's lawless and mountainous tribal region near the border with Afghanistan, rather than one cohesive organization. Taking out the man who coordinated the factions could lead to fierce rivalry over who will succeed him, and it could be in the interests of the top commanders to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who will replace him.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions, was skeptical about the Taliban's assertions, saying the claims could be part of a leadership struggle.
"I think that this denial from them ... doesn't appear to be holding much water," Shah said, noting that 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 — a body or an appearance by Mehsud himself — 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 due to diabetes complications. But a Taliban spokesman and a doctor denied the report the same day and Mehsud re-emerged.