Mixed Signals On Death Of Pakistani Taliban Leader

Pakistani officials say they believe that the head of the Taliban in Pakistan was killed last month in a U.S. missile attack, but they acknowledge they have no confirmation. Meanwhile, some Taliban spokesmen continue to insist their leader is alive.

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Speculation intensified today about the fate of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan's interior minister said there is credible evidence but no proof that Hakimullah Mehsud has died from wounds he sustained in a January missile strike by a U.S. drone. But a senior Taliban commander issued a fresh denial saying Mehsud is still alive.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Islamabad, and she has this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY: There is a frenzy of scenarios being spawned about Hakimullah's purported demise. Sighting those sources, Pakistani television first flashed the news 10 days ago that Hakimullah had been wounded in the neck and leg by a drone and spirited out of Waziristan for treatment in neighboring Orakzai district. A doctor was summoned, but couldn't save him, according to that report. In the last 24 hours, another version has emerged that Hakimullah died only yesterday in the Southern Punjab city of Multan before he could reach Karachi for treatment.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is an expert on the tribal areas and says the Taliban has long used backroads to move undetected and that it's plausible Hakimullah could have been transported out of Waziristan. If he is dead, Yusufzai puts it down to poor medical treatment.

Mr. RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI (Journalist): It is difficult even for someone like Hakimullah to get good medical care, to get treatment because they had to fetch a doctor and the roads are blocked, doctors do not want to go, that, you know, I think is happening in many cases now.

MCCARTHY: The United States has accelerated its drone strikes in the wake of the suicide attack on a U.S. base in Khost, across the border in Afghanistan, in which a team of CIA agents was killed in late December. After that, Imtiaz Gul of the Center for Research and Strategic Studies says Hakimullah Mehsud would have been more haunted than ever.

Mr. IMTIAZ GUL (Center for Research and Strategic Studies): Because the December 30th suicide attack on Khost most probably turned Hakimullah Mehsud into a direct American target because Hakimullah Mehsud did appear in a video together with al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who then killed these five CIA and two Blackwater people in that attack.

MCCARTHY: The lack of any evidence that Hakimullah is alive, such as a video of him, has deepened suspicions that he has met the same fate as his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud. He was killed in a drone attack in August. If the CIA-run drones have delivered a second fatal blow to the Taliban leadership, Rahimullah Yusufzai says the Taliban will be reeling.

Mr. YUSUFZAI: He was the second leader within six months. There could not have been a bigger loss, especially at this time when they're on the back foot and they have lost their most important stronghold in South Waziristan.

MCCARTHY: Officials have prematurely announced Hakimullah Mehsud's death before, only to discover him holding news conferences taunting his obituaries and launching bloody attacks that have killed more than 500 people here since October. Imtiaz Gul says the lack of agents on the ground able to report with any degree of reliability what may have happened to Hakimullah shrouds his case in uncertainty.

Mr. GUL: Human intelligence is very difficult to infiltrate into these areas, and we have been told that as many as 75 military intelligence operatives have been killed so far in Waziristan in the last couple of years. Penetrating the ranks of these people is a very, very risky proposition.

MCCARTHY: Adding to the mystery of Hakimullah's fate are U.S. and Pakistani officials who say privately he's dead, but we can't prove it.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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