Did Baitullah Mehsud Kill Benazir Bhutto? The Pakistani government has accused the pro-Taliban leader of involvement in the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, along with a series of attacks on security forces. What evidence does the government have linking him to the attacks? And how much influence does he have among the pro-Taliban forces?
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Did Baitullah Mehsud Kill Benazir Bhutto?

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Did Baitullah Mehsud Kill Benazir Bhutto?

Did Baitullah Mehsud Kill Benazir Bhutto?

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Three weeks have passed since the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. The government insists that the attack in Rawalpindi was ordered by an al-Qaida-linked militant by the name of Baitullah Mehsud.

But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, some Pakistanis are not convinced that he was the culprit.

PHILIP REEVES: Two or three years ago, no one has heard of Baitullah Mehsud. They have now. Pakistan's president, Musharraf, is hunting him.

President PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (Pakistan): He shoots and moves every day, every night. We know that.

REEVES: Pakistani journalist Ismail Khan is writing about him.

Mr. ISMAIL KHAN (Journalist): Baitullah Mehsud was described to me at least, you know, as a very cool, calculated guy.

REEVES: Pakistani pundit and retired soldier Brigadier Mahmood Shah is reminiscing about him.

Mr. MAHMOOD SHAH (Retired General, Pakistan): He is intelligent. He's very careful. He is patient.

REEVES: Yet the picture of the man, who Pakistan's government says was behind the Bhutto assassination, remains incomplete. Here's what we know. Baitullah Mehsud is in his early '30s. He's from Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan where the writ of central government does not run. He's fought against the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, who he views as foreign occupiers. We know he wants to see the introduction of Sharia law. And we know he's attacking the Pakistani army.

Speaking recently, Musharraf said Baitullah Mehsud was what he called a facilitator for al-Qaida. He blamed him for organizing a wave of suicide bombings mostly aimed at Pakistan's army and security services.

Pres. MUSHARRAF: He is attacking our people. And if you want to know the casualties, about 400 dead and about 900 wounded in the last three months.

REEVES: Musharraf argues the only groups in Pakistan capable of brainwashing suicide bombers are Islamist militants, like Baitullah Mehsud. Bhutto's convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber, ergo, argues Musharraf, her assassination must have been the work of Baitullah Mehsud or his allies.

However, photographs also show Bhutto being shot at from close range seconds before the blast. Many of Bhutto's party supporters don't believe she was killed by Islamists. They think her killers came from within the Musharraf government or elements linked to it.

(Soundbite of passing vehicles)

REEVES: And they're not the only ones who are not so sure about Musharraf's theory. This is the frontier city of Peshawar. It borders on the tribal areas and is the gateway to the Khyber Pass and the road to Afghanistan.

Ismail Khan, who runs the local bureau of Dawn newspaper, says Baitullah Mehsud is a Pakistani Taliban leader, but he doubts whether he's from al-Qaida.

Mr. KHAN: If he was an al-Qaida, really al-Qaida leader, why was the government talking to him?

REEVES: The Pakistani government talked to him more than once. In fact, three years ago, the authorities signed a peace agreement with Baitullah Mehsud, which later collapsed. A few months ago, the government was negotiating with him again after he took several hundred Pakistani soldiers hostage. Recently, Baitullah Mehsud's taken on a new role. A coalition's being formed of Islamist militants united in violent opposition to Musharraf, who they see as a puppet for the U.S. This includes so-called jihadists, once trained and funded by Pakistani intelligence to fight in Kashmir and Afghanistan, but who've since broken with their handlers.

Rahimullah Yusuf Zai, a veteran correspondent based in Peshawar, says this is a new development for the militants.

Mr. RAHIMULLAH YUSUF ZAI (BBC Correspondent): I think they realize that the must coordinate. And that's why this new umbrella group has been formed, they're linked to Taliban Pakistan.

REEVES: Baitullah Mehsud is the leader of that group. But is he Bhutto's killer? A day after Bhutto was killed, Pakistan's interior ministry issued a transcript of a conversation intercepted by Pakistani intelligence, which it said showed Baitullah Mehsud was responsible.

In it, he's talking to another man, allegedly a cleric, who tells him that the attack was the work of their people. But it's not clear when the recording was made or whether the two men were talking about Bhutto's death or whether the recording is authentic. The chief question now facing Musharraf is what to do about Baitullah Mehsud. Musharraf says that killing or capturing him isn't going to be easy.

Pres. MUSHARRAF: Getting him in that place means battling against thousands of people, hundreds of people who are his followers, the Mahsud tribe, if you get to him. And it will mean collateral damage.

REEVES: Collateral damage is, of course, another word for the death of civilians. For Baitullah Mehsud, that means dispatching another suicide bomber on a mission of indiscriminate revenge. And for Musharraf, that means more opposition and more instability.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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