Taliban Commander Says Leader In Pakistan Killed

A Taliban commander says the leader of Pakistan's Taliban fighters has been killed in a U.S. airstrike. U.S. officials have not yet confirmed that Baitullah Mehsud is dead. Baitullah Mehsud led a violent campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations against the Pakistani government.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's here more now about reports that a leader of Pakistan's Taliban fighters was killed in a U.S. air strike. This is a developing story and sources are difficult to verify. But NPR senior defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly has been sorting through what's known so far.

Hi, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what do you know?

KELLY: What we know that the reports we're tracking about Baitullah Mehsud. He is the leader of Pakistan's Taliban. He has been considered the number one security threat in Pakistan in these past couple of years.

The reports are - we know that there was some sort of missile strike, which thought to be by a CIA drone on the house of his father-in-law, one of his father-in-laws. We had had reports within the past couple of days that perhaps one his wives had been killed. And then as of yesterday, increasing certainty coming out of Pakistan, these are Pakistani Taliban leaders, who are seeing this Pakistani government official, saying with some certainty that they believe he was killed.

Now, U.S. officials, we should say, not quite so far out there in terms of certainty. They're still waiting on some sort of physical evidence, DNA evidence, a body - that would prove this.

INSKEEP: And when you talk about getting evidence, we already have a sense of how difficult this would be. This is a situation where the U.S. government is not formally acknowledging that it is firing missiles in Pakistan.

KELLY: Exactly.

INSKEEP: The Pakistani government doesn't like the practice and certainly doesn't like to talk about the practice of firing these missiles. And they're fired into remote areas near the border with Afghanistan - hard to access.

KELLY: And, in this case, we're talking about - it looks like south Waziristan. This is one of Pakistan's seven tribal agency where the Pakistani security forces don't have a lot of control and freedom of movements.

So what they're trying to sort out today, as we hear via reports from the region, that Taliban leaders have set up some sort of security perimeter around the strike area. And there are real questions in terms of trying to get to the body and produce some sort of DNA evidence that he has, in fact, been killed.

INSKEEP: Setting up a security parameter would seem to imply that they think something is there, or that they would like the rest of the world to think something is there, in any event.

KELLY: Absolutely. And also suggests the importance of his role within this movement. What we know about him, as we say, he's apparently in his late 30s, believed to be born around 1972. And he has really been seen as the driving force behind a lot of the attacks inside Pakistan. He - Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials believed that he was behind, for example, the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He denied that but what is certain is that he was behind a lot of violent attacks, and that, worryingly for U.S. officials, he had increasingly turned his sight on U.S. targets.

INSKEEP: And we should emphasize this Pakistani Taliban group is considered to be separate from various Afghan Taliban groups that we hear about.

KELLY: Right, although there are close links. We know that there are connections between Baitullah Mehsud's Pakistani Taliban group and the al-Qaida network that operates out of that region, for example. He, at this point, had focused primarily on Pakistani targets, but as I say, he had increasingly talked about wanting to set his sights on U.S. and NATO targets, for example, across the border in Afghanistan.

He had also talked about wanting to attack the U.S. homeland, and that was something that defense and intelligence officials here in the U.S. had paid attention, had taken seriously, but had expressed a great deal of skepticism over whether his group at that point - at this point - is able to attack so far from home.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, you've covered a number of these kinds of missile strikes over the years. Do we usually find out if the target is killed in the end or is it always a little uncertainly?

KELLY: Eventually, but again chatter is one thing, Internet talk rooms are one thing. Officials are following this very closely. Until they get DNA evidence, you never know 100 percent.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR senior defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, giving us an update today on news out of Pakistan from some sources that Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban, movement may have been killed - still looking for confirmation.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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