Pakistani Taliban Leader Believed Dead
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Baitullah Mehsud was once described by Newsweek as more dangerous than Osama bin Laden. As we've been reporting, Pakistani authorities now believe he was killed this week by an American missile strike. They're seeking final confirmation. One of Mehsud's own aides has reportedly confirmed his death.
NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Islamabad.
PHILIP REEVES: It can take a long time for news to waft down from the wild mountains of Waziristan. Today, reports from there flowed in thick and fast. They said Baitullah Mehsud, leader of Pakistan's Taliban, was killed Wednesday when missiles fired by a CIA drone hit his father-in-law's house.
Ismail Khan, a leading journalist and political analyst, tracks Mehsud's activities from Pakistan's frontier city of Peshawar, a staging post for Pakistan's tribal belt.
Khan's convinced these reports are true.
Mr. ISMAIL Khan (Journalist): I have no doubt now that the man is dead and that this is going to considerably weaken the Taliban in Pakistan.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Pakistani government officials sound pretty convinced, too. The foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said he received intelligence reports that Mehsud was dead.
Mr. SHAH MAHMOOD QURESHI (Foreign Minister, Pakistan): And he has been taken out.
REEVES: To be absolutely certain, though, Pakistan's government wants to verify these reports with information from the scene, he said.
Mr. BAITULLAH MEHSUD (Taliban Leader): (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Baitullah Mehsud usually shuns publicity.
Mr. MEHSUD: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: This is a rare press conference he gave a couple of years ago. Yet his is a household name, he's seen as a man who's charismatic and ruthless in equal measure. He formed an organization called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a coalition of 13 Islamist militant groups.
Ismail Khan says Mehsud managed to unify them.
Mr. KHAN: He had become a phenomenon in his own right. He had developed that aura about himself that (unintelligible) had become synonymous with the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan.
REEVES: Mehsud has launched attacks against U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan. His main goal, though, has been to destabilize Pakistan, with suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, in which many hundreds of people have died.
He denied official accusations that he masterminded the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007, but there's no doubt he became the biggest internal threat facing Pakistan's fragile government.
Pakistan's army will never forget the humiliation of two years ago, when Mehsud and his band of tribesman took more than 200 of its soldiers hostage.
Masood Sharif Khattak, a former head of Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau, says if confirmed, Mehsud's death will mark an important turnaround for Pakistan's security forces.
Mr. MASOOD SHARIF KHATTAK (Former Director-General, Intelligence Bureau): The initiative for the first time is back into the hands of the security agencies of Pakistan because the other side has a lack of leadership, has a - going to certainly have a tussle between themselves for succession.
REEVES: Political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi sees Mehsud's death, if true, as significant.
Mr. MOSHARRAF ZAIDI (Political Analyst): I think this will represent a major step forward for the Pakistani military and a major step back for violent extremists that seek to operate in Pakistan.
REEVES: But Zaidi adds:
Mr. ZAIDI: This is one man dying. Pakistan is still a country that is in deep, deep denial of some of its most fundamental problems.
REEVES: Pakistanis are under no illusions that Mehsud's death will mean the end of their conflict with Islamist militancy.
But Ismail Khan, the journalist, says that hasn't stopped many of them from welcoming it.
Mr. KHAN: There is relief. There is a sense of jubilation that the man is dead. And, you know, a lot of hope that this will have a huge stabilizing effect on the security environment inside Pakistan.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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