A tense Pakistan is awaiting the announcement of a new Taliban leader, after Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike on Friday.
Pakistan media say Mehsud’s funeral has taken place at an unknown location in the tribal area of North Waziristan. A Pakistan government minister said the drone strike believed to have killed Mehsud had destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with the militants. Taliban commander Khan Said Sajna is tipped to become the new leader. Mehsud was killed along with four other people - including two of his bodyguards - when four missiles struck their vehicle in the north-western region of North Waziristan, a senior Taliban official told the BBC. Neither the Pakistani nor US governments have officially confirmed or denied the reports.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the US president’s National Security Council, would not comment on any US government involvement or confirm the death but said, if true, it would be a serious loss for the group. Several previous claims of Mehsud’s death, made by US and Pakistani intelligence sources, have proven untrue. Without commenting on Mehsud’s death, the Pakistan government said it strongly condemned the drone attack as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The attack occurred on the same day the government announced it was about to send a delegation to North Waziristan to try to get peace negotiations with the Taliban under way.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had pledged to talk with the Taliban to try to end its campaign of violence, which has left thousands dead in bombings and shootings across the country. But Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the drone strike was “an attempt to sabotage the talks” with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). He held talks with other party leaders on Friday and reportedly expressed deep concern about the killing’s impact on government contacts with the militants.
Mehsud’s funeral is expected to take place on Saturday afternoon, with some reports saying it will be held in the main town of North Waziristan, Miranshah - some 5km from where he was killed. Another report, in Pakistan’s Express Tribune, said Mehsud had already been buried - in an unknown location in North Waziristan. The report cannot be independently confirmed. The Pakistani capital of Islamabad is reportedly on alert with an intensified security presence in the wake of the attack, police told local media. Taliban commanders are also expected to meet on Saturday to debate Mehsud’s successor.
There are conflicting reports in Pakistani media about who will become the next TTP chief, with some sources naming Mehsud’s cousin, Qari Walayat Mehsud, and others reporting militant commander Khan Said Sajna as the chosen successor. Mullah Fazlullah is another candidate. The BBC’s M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says that Khan Said Sajna may be favored. Sajna heads one of the more influential groups that favors dialogue with the Islamabad government, he says. Our correspondent says that the influential Punjabi Taliban may also have a say. Although they cannot dominate the Mehsud-led TTP, the Punjabi force, he says, plays an important role in supplying highly trained and ideologically motivated fighters.
Mehsud’s death is seen as another setback for the militant group after the recent capture of a senior commander by US forces in Afghanistan. Mehsud, who led the insurgency from North Waziristan, had a $5m FBI bounty on his head and was thought to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. He had come to prominence in 2007 as a commander under the militant group’s founder Baitullah Mehsud, with the capture of 300 Pakistani soldiers adding to his prestige among the militants. His second-in-command, Waliur Rehman, was killed in a similar drone strike in May. But BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says that, however weakened the Taliban may be by this loss, they will fight on under a new leader.
In a rare interview with the BBC two weeks ago, Mehsud said he was open to “serious talks” with the government but said he had not yet been approached. Mehsud denied carrying out recent deadly attacks in public places, saying his targets were “America and its friends.” He had loose control over more than 30 militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas.