Taliban Confirms Killing of Pakistan Chief

Pakistan's top Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, at right, talks to local media in Kotkai, a village in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan, May 24, 2008.
Last Updated at 2:20 p.m. EDT

Pakistani officials and a senior Taliban figure told CBS News on Friday that the militant group's highest-ranking commander in the country was killed in a U.S. missile strike earlier in the week and that his body has been buried.

Locals residents in the area of the strike, Pakistani intelligence officials and two senior figures from Mehsud's own Taliban faction confirmed the death of Baitullah Mehsud, reports CBS News' Maria Usman. They say he was killed in the suspected CIA missile strike on his father-in-law's house.

Maulvi Kifayatullah, head of Mehsud's Taliban faction for the Aurakzai agency, a region which sits next to the commander's home region of South Waziristan, confirmed the killing to Usman in a phone call. A second source, a subcommander in Mehsud's own region, also said the feared warlord was dead.

The U.S. put a $5 million bounty on his head in March. Increasingly, American missiles fired by unmanned drones have focused on Mehsud-related targets.

While his demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al Qaeda, it won't necessarily deal a definitive blow because he has deputies who could take his place.

CBS News' Sami Yousafzai reports that, according to Taliban sources, a rare meeting of top aides was held Thursday, but it was unclear whether the meeting was called to select a new leader or pay tribute to Mehsud's wife. Under intense pressure from U.S. air strikes, Taliban commanders had ordered a halt to all high-level gatherings, making Thursday's meeting something of a mystery.

Considered by Pakistan to be its top internal threat, Mehsud had al Qaeda connections and was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan publicly opposes the missile strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it harder for the army to operate. Still, many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.

In June, Pakistan said it was launching an operation against Mehsud in South Waziristan. But although airstrikes began, the offensive never went full-scale. In the meantime, the U.S. missile strikes continued, increasingly targeting Mehsud and raising speculation that the Pakistanis were hoping - or even coordinating with - the Americans to kill Mehsud first.

CBS News' Farhan Bokhari reported that the chief diplomat, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told reporters that Pakistan was "trying to get verification on the ground for 100 percent confirmation, but according to my information he has been taken out."

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said earlier this week there was a "strong possibility" Mehsud died in the Aug. 5 strike - an assessment not disputed by a U.S. official speaking Thursday to CBS News.

But U.S. authorities were also seeking DNA evidence to confirm whether Mehsud was killed in the strike, reports CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier.

The U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was "reason to believe" the reports may be accurate, "but it cannot be confirmed at this point."

The official called it "surprising" that a prominent members of Mehsud's own group would give confirmation of his death, but added that "there has been enough infighting over the past six months that the various internal and external rivals want the 'clean break' so they can position themselves."

CBS News correspondent Richard Roth reports that this is not the first time the leader of the Pakistani Taliban has been reported killed, but it is the first time there's been so much support for the claim.

For years, the U.S. considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al Qaeda, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

That view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud's power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilize the U.S. ally and threaten the entire region.

Last year, Mehsud held a rare news conference in the town of Kot Kai in South Waziristan to discuss his fight against the U.S.

"It is the top desire of my life to obtain martyrdom, I have strong feelings for the martyrdom in my heart," he said. "To be a martyr, to be wounded or arrested we consider it as a sacrifice."

He said the Taliban supported suicide bombings as a response to American bombs.

"America is bombing us and we are facing cruelty, so we will support these suicide attacks." he said. "They (suicide bombers) are our atom bombs. Although the infidels have the atom bombs, our atom bombs are the finest in the world.

"They use the atom (bomb) and it destroyed everything while our one bomb just targets one target to be destroyed."

Analysts say the reason for Mehsud's rise in the militant ranks is his alliances with al Qaeda and other violent groups. U.S. intelligence has said al Qaeda has set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud's South Waziristan stronghold and neighboring North Waziristan.

Sources tell Usman that Taliban leaders are already considering three or four candidates to replace Mehsud, one of the most likely being his cousin and top aide, Hakimullah Mehsud.

CBS News' Khaled Wassef reports that Hakimullah Mehsud (at left) is the Taliban's commander for the Urakzai, Kurram, and Khyber tribal agencies.

Two other prominent possibilities, the officials said, were Azmat Ullah and Waliur Rehman, also close associates of Mehsud.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition his name not be used, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law's house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief's funeral.

The Pakistani intelligence officials said Mehsud was buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan, near the site of the missile strike.

Last year, a doctor for Mehsud said the militant leader had died of kidney failure, but the report turned out to be false.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration could not confirm the death of Mehsud. "There seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers that he is indeed dead," he said, adding that if he is dead, "without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result."

Another senior Pakistani intelligence official said phone and other communications intercepts - he would not be more specific - had led authorities to suspect Mehsud was dead, but stressed there was no definitive evidence yet.

An American counterterrorism official said the U.S. government was also looking into the reports. The official indicated the United States did not yet have physical evidence - remains - that would prove who died but said there were other ways of determining who was killed. He declined to describe them.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.

Whether a new leader could wreak as much havoc as Mehsud depends largely on how much pressure the Pakistani military continues to put on the network, especially in South Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal belt. The mountainous region has a leaky border with Afghanistan and fiercely independent, heavily armed tribes hostile to interference by outsiders. The Pashtun tribes from which the Taliban draws most of its fighters straddle both sides of the border.

Although Mehsud's stronghold in South Waziristan does not directly border Afghanistan, he was known to have ties to other commanders acting on the frontier and was believed to give refuge to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan who move freely back and forth across the border.

In Afghanistan, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Mehsud's fighters would cross the border into eastern Afghanistan occasionally to help out one of most ruthless Afghan insurgent leaders, Siraj Haqqani.

"He was an international terrorist that affected India, Pakistan and Afghanistan," Azimi said, without confirming Mehsud was dead.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Pakistan's military was determined to finish off Pakistan's Taliban.

"It is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mehsud's group and it will continue till Baitullah Mehsud's group is eliminated forever," he said.

Pakistan's record on putting pressure on the Taliban network is spotty. It has used both military action and truces to try to contain Mehsud over the years, but neither tactic seemed to work, despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid aimed at helping the Pakistanis tame the tribal areas.

Mehsud was not that prominent a militant when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions. In fact, he has struggled against such rivals as Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who spent time in Guantanamo Bay.

But a February 2005 peace deal with Mehsud appeared to give him room to consolidate and boost his troop strength. Within months of that accord, dozens of pro-government tribal elders in the region were gunned down on his command.

In December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan's Taliban movement. Under his guidance, the group killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks.

Mehsud has no record of attacking targets in the West, although he has threatened to attack Washington.

He was suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. Pakistan's former government and the CIA named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister. He denied any role.