x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Mehsud buried, says Pakistan TV

The Pakistani Taliban deny reports that their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is dead despite a claim by state-run television.

ISLAMABAD // The Pakistani Taliban have denied reports that their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is dead despite a claim by state-run television yesterday that the militant commander had succumbed to wounds suffered in a drone missile strike in mid-January. Pakistan Television reported that Mr Mehsud was buried in the Orakzai tribal region. The source of the information was unclear. A Pakistani military spokesman declined to confirm the accuracy of the report, saying the military was investigating the matter.

The interior minister, Rehman Malik, also could not confirm the death of the militant commander. "There are reports from local tribal elders of his death but there is no official confirmation yet," Mr Malik said. As fresh rumours of Mr Mehsud's death spread yesterday, Taliban commanders also contacted local and foreign news media outlets and, in their characteristic defiant manner, challenged journalists to prove Mr Mehsud's death.

"Hakimullah is alive and safe. The purpose of stories regarding his death is to create differences among Taliban ranks, but such people will never succeed," Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told Agence France-Presse. "People who are saying that Hakimullah has died should provide proof of it. We have already proved that he is alive and we have provided two audio tapes of him to all the media," Mr Tariq was quoted as saying.

Mr Mehsud, 29, a brash militant commander, became the leader of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in August after Baitullah Mehsud, who had launched a series of brazen and deadly suicide attacks on military and civilian targets, was killed by a US drone missile strike. There were rumours then of an in-house power struggle between competing militant commanders, leading the Pakistani interior minister to claim that Hakimullah Mehsud had died in a gun battle.

Those reports, however, turned out to be untrue. Mr Mehsud hails from South Waziristan, the rugged tribal region straddling the border with Afghanistan that served as a base of the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani military launched an offensive in South Waziristan late last year and claims to have cleared most of the area of Taliban fighters. But analysts said the militants and their leaders simply slipped into neighbouring tribal regions, especially North Waziristan and Orakzai, and are regrouping.

The Pakistani military has baulked at US demands to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, saying its troops are already overstretched. Mr Mehsud is also thought to have masterminded attacks in the North-West Frontier Province on several convoys of lorries carrying supplies for Nato forces in Afghanistan. A video that surfaced last month showed Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed eight people at a Central Intelligence Agency outpost in Afghanistan in December, sitting with Mr Mehsud. It was seen as a proof of the tight association and close co-ordination of the Pakistani Taliban factions with al Qa'eda.

Since then, Mr Mehsud has been a repeated target of US missile strikes and his fate is rife with speculation. The reports of Mr Mehsud's death first surfaced on January 14 when a drone strike hit a compound in Shaktoi area in Sararogha district of South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban were quick to dismiss the reports, though they acknowledged his presence in the area at the time of the attack.

He was reportedly targeted again on January 17 in North Waziristan. Pakistani analysts said that although the exact fate of Mr Mehsud remained shrouded in mystery, it was clear that the militants were scrambling for safe havens. "The reports of Hakimullah's death come at a time when the TTP is under fresh pressure [by the army] ... making its future increasingly uncertain," said Cyril Almeida, an editor at Dawn, the country's leading newspaper.

Almeida said being denied a secure base of operations in South Waziristan has hurt the militants and that the wave of violence last year was seen as a "desperate tactic". "While it's too early to write the TTP's obituary, it's safe to say that the state appears to have the upper hand and seems determined to finish the job," Almeida said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae