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Pakistan Taliban seeks new leader


A 2008 file photo of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistani Taliban, who was killed in a US drone strike.

A 2008 file photo of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistani Taliban, who was killed in a US drone strike.

A 2008 file photo of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistani Taliban, who was killed in a US drone strike.

The Pakistani Taliban have confirmed the death of their leader in a US drone strike, as the group's leadership council met to begin the process of choosing a successor.

The death on Friday of Hakimullah Mehsud, a ruthless leader known for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of the security forces, is a heavy blow for the militant group.

The drone strike came as the Pakistan government tries to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, as the militant group Mehsud headed was formally called. Already the strike threatened to worsen US-Pakistan relations as the Pakistani government's information minister criticised the US for jeopardizing the peace talks.

"What we can say is this time the drone (strike) was on the dialogue, but we will not let the dialogue die," information minister Pervaiz Rashid said.

Azam Tariq, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman in the South Waziristan tribal area, provided the first official confirmation of Mehsud's death.

"We are proud of the martyrdom of Hakimullah Mehsud," Tariq told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. "We will continue our activities."

Mehsud and the other four militants killed in the strike were buried today at an undisclosed location, Taliban commanders said. Drones still flew over North Waziristan today.

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Witnesses in the towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah reported that Mehsud's supporters fired at them in anger.

The Taliban's Shura Council, a group of commanders representing various wings of the group, gathered today in the North Waziristan tribal area, intelligence officials and militant commanders said. It is the same region where the drone strike killed Mehsud yesterday.

The Shura will continue to meet for a few days before it makes a decision, said Tariq, the Taliban spokesman.

The two main candidates to succeed Mehsud are Khan Sayed, the Pakistani Taliban leader in the South Waziristan tribal area, and Mullah Fazlullah, the chief in the north-west Swat Valley, said Pakistani intelligence officials and Taliban commanders.

A leadership struggle broke out after Hakimullah Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in 2009, and it took the group a few weeks to choose a new leader. It is unclear if a similar leadership struggle is under way now.

Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a village outside Miran Shah when multiple missiles slammed into a compound just after a vehicle carrying the militant commander arrived. The other militants killed were identified as Mehsud's cousin, uncle and one of his guards. The identity of the fourth militant is not yet known.

Mehsud gained a reputation as a merciless planner of suicide attacks in Pakistan. After taking over as the Pakistani Taliban's leader, he tried to internationalise the group's focus.

He's believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan and a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square, as well as assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and members of security forces.

Mehsud was on the US most-wanted terrorist lists with a 5 million dollar (£3.1 million) bounty.

He also increased coordination with al-Qaida and Pakistani militants, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and funded the group's many attacks by raising money through extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery.

"This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban which may spark internal fractures in the movement," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped craft the agency's drone campaign.

"Since the Taliban are a key al-Qaida ally it will be a setback for them as well," said Mr Riedel, who now runs the Washington-based Brookings Institution's intelligence project.

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in part on promises to bring peace to the country through negotiations instead of more military operations. On Thursday, Mr Sharif had said talks with the militants were under way.

Officials in the country regularly criticize the attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the government is known to have supported some strikes in the past.

Popular politician Imran Khan has been one of the most vocal critics of the strikes. His party runs the government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and has threatened to block trucks carrying supplies to Nato troops in Afghanistan unless the attacks stop.

Mr Khan said today that the US had sabotaged the efforts to bring peace to Pakistan, and his party would push the provincial assembly to adopt a resolution to block the Nato supplies.

"Dialogue has been broken with this drone attack," he said.


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