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    Posted: 06 August 2009 at 3:35pm
Pakistan probes reports of Taliban chief's death
           1 min ago
ISLAMABAD U.S. and Pakistani authorities are investigating reports that Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in an American missile strike, officials from both countries said Friday. If confirmed, Mehsud's demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Mehsud is believed responsible for dozens of suicide attacks, beheadings and target killings in Pakistan. He is allied with al-Qaida and has been suspected in the killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan views him as its top internal threat and has been preparing an offensive against him. The U.S. sees him as a danger to the war effort in Afghanistan, largely because of the threat he is believed to pose to nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The missile strike hit the home of Mehsud's father-in-law in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region early Wednesday. Intelligence officials say Mehsud's second wife was among at least two people killed, and Mehsud associates have claimed he was not among the dead.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas cautioned that the reports of Mehsud's death are still unconfirmed.

"We are receiving reports and probing," he said.

The U.S. government is also looking into the reports, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

The counterterrorism official indicated that the United States did not yet have physical evidence remains that would prove who died. But he said there are other ways of determining who was killed in the strike. He declined to describe them.

For years, the U.S. has considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al-Qaida, 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 nuclear-armed U.S. ally, threatening the entire region.

In March, the State Department authorized a reward of up to $5 million for the militant chief. And increasingly, American missile strikes falling by the dozens over the past year focused on Mehsud-related targets.

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 December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan's Taliban movement. Under Mehsud's guidance, the group has killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks. He is believed to have as many as 20,000 fighters at his beck and call, among them a steady supply of suicide bombers.

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

Mehsud has no record of attacking targets abroad, although he has threatened to attack Washington.

However, he is 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 have named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He has denied a role.

The Pakistani government used both military action and truces to try to contain Mehsud over the years, but neither appeared to work, despite billions in U.S. aid aimed at helping the Pakistanis tame the tribal areas.

In June of this year, Pakistan said it would launch an offensive against Mehsud in South Waziristan.

In the weeks that have followed, the army has relied heavily on airstrikes to target areas under Mehsud's control, but it has never quite gone full-scale with the offensive.

In the meantime, the missile strikes continued, raising speculation that the U.S. might get him first.

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 the strikes.


Associated Press Writer Pamela Hess
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