A suspected U.S. missile strike killed at least 10 militants in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan on Tuesday, senior Pakistani intelligence officials tell CBS News.
(AP Photo/Sherin Zada)
The attack sparked immediate speculation that one or two of those killed might be senior commanders under Baitullah Mehsud — the chief of the Pakistani Taliban thought to have been killed in a similar U.S. strike last week.
"We are investigating the possibility of one or two Mehsud loyalists among the dead. Right now, I can't give you names," a Pakistani security official told CBS News from Peshawar, provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where the attack took place. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Pictured above: Pakistan army soldiers search for militants in their stronghold of Kabal of Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley in Pakistan, Aug. 11, 2009.
While some Taliban figures have claimed Mehsud survived last week's attack, a senior Pakistani intelligence official on Tuesday renewed the official claim that he was killed. "There is no way Baitullah Mehsud is alive. He is definitely dead," said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The same official said Hakimullah Mehsud, the cousin of and a likely successor to Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a shootout on Saturday between rival contenders for the top slot as "Emir," or Islamic ruler, of the "Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan" (Taliban movement of Pakistan).
The TTP was created by Baitullah Mehsud as an umbrella organization which assembled an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 armed fighters, mainly from the border region.
On Monday, some Pakistani private TV channels said they received a phone call from a man claiming to be Hakimullah Mehsud. The call suggested that a core element within the TTP is still intact, and may be able to steer the group in time towards a possible comeback following Baitullah Mehsud's death.
However, the security officials who spoke to CBS News from Peshawar claimed the group was heading toward a likely break-up between rival contenders for power.
"The shootout was a bloody massacre. Some reports show up to 35 people were killed altogether. It was a bloodbath," said one source, adding, "the top tiers of the TTP are in total disarray."
Baitullah Mehsud's death and the breakup in the TTP are likely to be of some comfort to Pakistan's security community. He was linked to high profile suicide and bomb attacks in the south Asian country, most notably the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and last year's truck bombing of the landmark Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
Analysts, however, warn of the danger of having to deal with splinter groups in the border region, each with its own agenda. The border region has historically been home to fiercely independent gunmen, split in to tribes.
The area also forms part of the region where foreign conquerors, notably the British under colonial rule, failed to suppress recurring insurgencies.
In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan successfully built up a Pakistan-based resistance to the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union — with most of the support to Afghan dissidents funneled through the NWFP.
"People have no idea, the thought of dealing with splinter groups is far from easy" Lt. Gen. Moinuddin Haider (retired), Pakistan's former Interior Minister, told CBS News.
"Once you break the center of power, as seems to have happened with Baitullah Mehsud's killing, you must then look at the sort of challenge which follows," he warned.