SHAKTOI, Pakistan – The Pakistani Taliban vowed to fight with "new zeal" in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death to complete the al-Qaida chief's mission of waging holy war against the West, the deputy commander of the militant group told The Associated Press.
The comments by Waliur Rehman appeared designed to deflate expectations that the May 2 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden would slow down insurgent groups allied with or inspired by al-Qaida. It also could be an attempt to raise morale among the insurgents.
The primary target of the Pakistani Taliban has been Pakistan itself, which the militants claim is essentially a slave to the United States. But the group also has been linked to plots against the West, including a Pakistani American's failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square last year and a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA agents at an Afghan base in 2009.
Last week, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing at a paramilitary police training facility that killed some 90 people, and said it was revenge for bin Laden's death.
Rehman did not mention those bombings, but suggested the militants would continue to stage attacks in the coming days. He spoke to the AP on Monday along the border between North and South Waziristan, two lawless tribal regions where Islamist militants are strong.
"After the martyrdom of Sheik Osama, the mujahideen will continue jihad to complete his mission with a new zeal," Rehman said, referring to his fighters.
"We have the same target, program and mission," he added. "Our enemies are NATO, Jews and Christians."
The Pakistani Taliban is a network of militant groups that is distinct from but linked to the Afghan Taliban.
On Wednesday, around 100 militants bearing rocket-propelled grenades attacked a key security checkpoint near the Pakistani city of Peshawar, sparking a three-hour clash that killed two police officers and 15 insurgents, said a senior police official, Liaquat Ali Khan.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is likely tied to the Pakistani military's offensives against militants in its tribal belt. The checkpoint at Sangu Mera lies just along the border of the Khyber tribal region, one of the areas where the Taliban and other militants have hideouts.
The checkpoint is about six miles (10 kilometers) away from Peshawar, a strategically important city near Afghanistan.
Rehman also questioned details that have emerged about the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. He said he believed bin Laden detonated a suicide jacket to avoid arrest and that was the reason the U.S. had resisted releasing a photo of his corpse.
The White House says it will not release the photos to avoid sparking outrage and potential violence from bin Laden supporters.
Rehman called bin Laden "a leader and flag carrier of jihad" and said his death was "a heartbreaking loss for us."
"He was an invaluable asset because he stood with great zeal against the American and Zionist alliance," Rehman said.
Pakistan and the U.S. are struggling to improve relations since the raid that killed bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Pakistani officials consider the surprise attack a violation of their sovereignty and deny knowing he was staying in Abbottabad. The U.S. says the secrecy surrounding the mission was vital to its success.
U.S. officials say they hope the bin Laden killing will push Pakistan to do more to take on extremists.
Pakistan's army has carried out anti-insurgent operations in six of its seven tribal districts. The one place it has not mounted an offensive is volatile North Waziristan, a tribal area home to militants whose primary focus is attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Islamabad says it is too stretched battling insurgents who have attacked the Pakistani state — including the Pakistani Taliban network — to order a North Waziristan offensive right now. The U.S. relies heavily on its missile strikes to take out targets in North Waziristan.
Associated Press Writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.