The leader of the Pakistani Taleban, Hakimullah Mehsud, has been killed in a United States drone strike, intelligence officials and Taleban militants confirmed yesterday.
The strike targeted a vehicle frequently used by Mehsud with four missiles in the north-western region of North Waziristan.
Intelligence sources last night said four other people had been killed in the strike, including two of Mehsud’s personal bodyguards.
Mehsud, who is believed to have been behind a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square, as well as brazen attacks inside Pakistan, had a reputation for being a particularly ruthless leader.
The news of his death came after several previous claims of his demise, made by US and Pakistani intelligence sources, proved untrue.
But last night, a senior American intelligence official said the US had received confirmation earlier in the day that the leader had been killed.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials in North Waziristan also confirmed his death, as did two Taleban commanders who said they had seen the militant commander’s dead body.
But the CIA and the White House had yet to officially confirm Mehsud’s death.
His apparent killing comes just a day before Pakistani officials are due to send a three-member team to start peace negotiations with the Taleban.
Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, told a local TV news channel, Geo, that the drone strike had been an attempt to “sabotage” those peace talks with the Taleban.
But many believe Mehsud’s death will leave the field open for groups that are known to have publicly favoured a rapprochement with Pakistan.
One of these groups is headed by Khan Said Sajna, the successor of Waliur Rehman, a militant commander who favoured talks with Islamabad and once contested for the leadership of the Pakistani Taleban.
Rehman was killed in a drone strike in May.
Sajna is one of those now tipped to succeed Mehsud as the new leader of the Pakistani Taleban.
The drone strike targeted Mehsud’s vehicle in the Dande Darpakhel, which is three miles north of the region’s main town, Miranshah.
Mehsud first came to prominence in 2007 as a commander under the Pakistani Taleban’s founder Baitullah Mehsud, with the capture of 300 Pakistani soldiers, adding to his prestige among the militants.
In 2009, at the age of 30, he became the leader of the Pakistani Taleban, after Baitullah Mehsud died in a US drone strike at his father-in-law’s residence in South Waziristan.
In January 2010, Hakimullah Mehsud gained further notoriety when he appeared in a video alongside a Jordanian man, who was said to have blown himself up, killing seven CIA agents in Afghanistan to avenge Baitullah Mehsud’s death.
Mehsud had a $5 million (£3m) FBI bounty on his head and was thought to have been responsible over the years for the deaths of thousands of people.
His death comes at a sensitive time.
The Pakistani government has been trying to cut a peace deal with the militants to end years of fighting in the country’s north west.
During a visit to London on Thursday, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif said talks with the Pakistani Taleban had started, although he gave no further details about who was involved or what was on the agenda.
The Pakistani government was swift to condemn the Friday drone strike, albeit before news of Mehsud’s death was reported by several different sources.
“These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is an across-the-board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end,” the ministry of foreign affairs said.
The drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, where many people view them as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty and complain that innocent civilians are killed in the process.