Taleban leader among seven killed by US drones

Wali'ur'Rehman, centre, is flanked by militants and surrounded by weapons in this image from 2011. Picture: Saud Mehsud/Reuters
Wali'ur'Rehman, centre, is flanked by militants and surrounded by weapons in this image from 2011. Picture: Saud Mehsud/Reuters
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A US drone strike has killed the operational commander of the Pakistani Taleban in the North Waziristan region, only a week after president Barack Obama announced more caution over the use of such force.

The drone strike yesterday killed seven people, Pakistani security officials said, including Taleban second-in-command Wali-ur-Rehman, in the first such attack since the 11 May election. The use of the unmanned aircraft was a campaign issue.

Rehman had been poised to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as leader of the Pakistani Taleban.

“This is a huge blow to militants and a win in the fight against insurgents,” one security official said.

Two officials said their informants in the field saw Rehman’s body, while a third said intelligence authorities had intercepted communications between militants saying Rehman had been killed.

Rehman has been on the US radar for years. In 2010, Washington offered $5 million for information leading to the capture of Rehman under their “Rewards for Justice” programme.

While Rehman was mostly known for his activities in Pakistan, the US said he also participated in attacks in Afghanistan against US and Nato personnel.

The US wanted Rehman in connection with his alleged involvement in an attack on a US base in Khost, Afghanistan in 2009. The attack killed seven Americans working for the CIA, a Jordanian intelligence officer. The drone programme over Pakistan is controlled by the CIA.

The Pakistani Taleban are a separate entity allied to the Afghan Taleban. Known as the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan, they have launched devastating attacks against the country’s military and civilians.

Pakistani Taleban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said the group did not have “confirmed reports” that Rehman had been killed. But other sources in the region said the militant leader was killed in the strike.

Security officials and Pashtun tribesmen said the drone fired two missiles that struck a house in a village two miles east of Miranshah, the region’s administrative capital. They said seven people were killed and four hurt.

Resident Bashir Dawar said: “Tribesmen started rescue work an hour after the attack and recovered seven bodies. The bodies were beyond recognition.”

The Pakistan government has yet to confirm Rehman’s death.

A US drone also killed Pakistani Taleban commander Baitullah Mehsud in 2009. But the Pakistani foreign ministry again denounced the use of drones in general yesterday.

“The government has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law,” it said.

Mr Obama recently indicated he was scaling back the drone programme, winning cautious approval from Pakistan.

North Waziristan, on the Afghan border, has long been a stronghold of militants, including of al-Qaeda.

Prime minister-elect Nawaz Sharif said earlier this month that drone strikes were a “challenge” to Pakistan’s sovereignty.

“We will sit with our American friends and talk to them about this issue,” he said.

Mr Obama’s announcement was widely welcomed by the people of North Waziristan, where there have been many strikes, sometimes with heavy civilian casualties.

The strike also coincided with the first session of the newly elected provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former Northwest Frontier Province.

Former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party won most seats in the assembly and denounced the drone strike, saying Mr Obama had gone back on his word.