Pakistani Taliban Leader Dead Or Dying?

DO NOT USE: THIS IS NOT MEHSUD!!! -TJR Sources say Pakistani warlord Baitullah Mehsud threatens to eclipse Osama bin Laden as the world's top terrorist. CBS

The leader of Pakistan's increasingly bold Taliban movement is very ill, but intelligence officials in the United States and Pakistan have cast doubt on reports that Baitullah Mehsud may have died.

Mehsud is only in his mid to late thirties, but is believed to suffer from multiple health issues, including diabetes and kidney problems.

One of Mehsud's subcommanders told CBS News' Sami Yousafzai he'd met with the powerful militant leader on Tuesday night and that his blood sugar level was improving, and with it, his general health.

Just hours after unconfirmed reports of his death surfaced late on Tuesday, a senior Pakistani security official told CBS News' Farhan Bokhari the Taliban branch inside his country was "scrambling to appoint two new deputies in a possible preparation for a succession."

"Unless someone produces a body, I can't confirm Baitullah Mehsud's death. But we are witnessing intelligence reports along the lines of the Taliban scrambling to appoint two new deputies," said a senior Pakistani security official. "Is this the Taliban preparation for a succession? That is the question we are asking but there are no answers as yet."

Mehsud's death was reported overnight by the privately owned GEO TV channel and pan-Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera, citing unnamed security sources in Pakistan.

Wednesday, a senior Arab diplomat in Pakistan with access to intelligence information told Bokhari "we are no now hearing reports that he is ill but still alive."

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the earlier reports of Mehsud's death "may well have been premature."

A U.S. official told CBS News correspondent Bob Orr that Mehsud is known to have significant health problems, including diabetes, but confirmation of his death would come only when his body could be produced.

While the Taliban denies the reports of Mehsud's death, they do not argue that the leader's health is in a desperate state. Yousafzai reports Mehsud has been seriously ill for weeks, unable to carry out most of his regular duties as commander of the Islamic extremist movement.

Sources inside the group say a doctor who recently visited Mehsud advised him not to meet with other people, as his mental health was also deteriorating.

If Mehsud has died, or does soon, Bokhari reports his absence would mark a significant symbolic setback to the Taliban on the heels of a tactical defeat near Paksitan's border with Afghanistan.

After days of bloody clashes, the Pakistani military has declared success in an operation to rid the Bajur region of Taliban fighters.

However, opinion is divided on how much Mehsud's death would disrupt the Taliban, which has become increasingly bold in carrying out attacks on Pakistan's civil and military targets since the country's former ruler, Pervez Musharraf, ordered the military to attack a pro-Taliban mosque in the center of Islamabad during the summer of 2007.

"I am sure if he is about to die or has already died, there will be a succession and somebody else will take over from him and the Taliban movement will continue. But this will be a major morale booster for Pakistan," a second Pakistani security official told Bokhari.

The sources spoke to CBS News on customary condition of anonymity, as they were not permitted to share the information about such sensitive topics to the nation's security.

On Sept. 20, at least 57 people were killed and 266 injured in a devastating truck bomb blast at Islamabad's Marriott hotel. The brazen attack was a powerful reminder to Pakistanis, and the rest of the world, of the instability within the country.

Investigators searched for any clues that might link Mehsud to the planning or supplying of explosives for the devastating attack, but, to date, no conclusive evidence has been made public.

On Monday night, the Pakistani government announced the appointment of a military general as the new leader of the country's powerful spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

The move was seen as a response to recent criticism by U.S. and other Western officials who have privately questioned the loyalties of some ISI operatives. The agency created has decades old links to the Taliban movement and it is widely suspected that there are still operatives sympathetic to Islamic militants, including the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Pakistan's government has always denied the allegations.

Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the new director general of the ISI, is an accomplished officer who recently oversaw the planning of the military's operation in Bajur, a former Taliban stronghold.

Western diplomats have said the top-level change at the ISI could mark a more aggressive push by Pakistan to go after Mehsud's fighters in the border region. The U.S. has repeatedly urged Pakistan to do more to prevent Taliban and al Qaeda militants from operating on its soil, and from crossing the border to launch attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
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