SENIOR figures in the Pakistani Taleban met yesterday to choose a successor to leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike.
Tension remained high across Pakistan following Mehsud’s death on Friday. The killing of the ruthless leader, who was responsible for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of the security forces, was a heavy blow for the militant group.
The timing of his death has also angered many mainstream Pakistani politicians.
The drone strike came as the Pakistan government was trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taleban, the formal name for Mehsud’s militant group. Yesterday, the Pakistani government’s information minister criticised America for jeopardising the peace talks.
Imran Khan, the former cricketer who is now a political leader, called for roadblocks to stop lorries carrying supplies to Nato troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. “Dialogue has been broken with this drone attack,” he said.
Unconfirmed reports suggested that the Taleban’s number two commander, Khan Said, also known as Sajna, had been selected to replace Mehsud.
Said is believed to have masterminded an attack on a jail in north-west Pakistan that freed nearly 400 prisoners in 2012 and an attack on a Pakistani air force base in the same year.
Yesterday, Azam Tariq, the Pakistani Taleban spokesman in the South Waziristan tribal area, provided the first official confirmation of Mehsud’s death.
“We are proud of the martyrdom of Hakimullah Mehsud,” Tariq said. “We will continue our activities.”
The Pakistani Taleban is an umbrella group of militant factions that has battled the government since its formation in 2007. The group seeks to topple Pakistan’s democratic system and impose Islamic law, and also wants an end to the country’s unpopular alliance with the US.
Mehsud and the other four militants killed in the drone strike were buried yesterday at an undisclosed location, Taleban commanders said.
Drones still flew over North Waziristan throughout the day. Witnesses in the towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah reported that Mehsud’s supporters fired at them in anger.
The Taleban’s Shura Council, a group of commanders representing its various factions, gathered at an undisclosed location yesterday in the North Waziristan tribal area, intelligence officials and a militant commander said.
Said was one of two candidates vying to succeed Mehsud. The other was Mullah Fazlullah, the chief in the north-west Swat Valley.
Omar Khalid Khurasani, who heads the group’s wing in the Mohmand tribal area, was also in the running, militant commanders said, but he was not believed to be a strong candidate.
Several Taleban commanders reported that a majority of Shura members voted for Said, but they were still waiting for commanders from remote areas to arrive before making an announcement.
A leadership struggle broke out after Mehsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in 2009. It took the group weeks to choose a new leader.
Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a village outside Miran Shah when missiles slammed into a compound just after he arrived. The other militants killed were identified as Mehsud’s cousin, uncle and one of his guards. The identity of the fourth militant is not yet known.
Mehsud gained a reputation as a merciless planner of suicide attacks in Pakistan.
He was believed to have been behind a suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan and a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square, as well as assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and members of security forces.
Mehsud was on the US most-wanted terrorist list with a $5 million (£3.1m) bounty on his head. He increased co-ordination with al-Qaeda and Pakistani militants, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and funded many attacks by raising money through extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery.
“This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taleban which may spark internal fractures in the movement,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped plan the drone campaign.
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in part on promises to bring peace to the country through negotiations instead of military operations. On Thursday, he said talks with the militants were under way. Mehsud’s death will complicate Sharif’s efforts to secure a peace deal.