Pak Taliban deputy believed killed

ISLAMABAD: A top Pakistani Taliban commander close to al-Qaida is believed to have been killed in an army airstrike, officials said Saturday, in the latest apparent blow to insurgents who have attacked Pakistan and threatened U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Maulvi Faqir Mohammed was believed to be among a number of insurgents killed Friday at a sprawling compound in the northwest Mohmand tribal region, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

He said authorities had not identified the bodies of Mohammed or his fellow commander Qari Ziaur Rehman, but all the militants hiding at the site were killed after the helicopter gunships were dispatched on "real-time" intelligence.

"If Faqir Mohammed and Qari Ziaur Rehman are alive, then I will be surprised," he told Pakistan's Express news channel after receiving a briefing from the paramilitary Frontier Corps in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Mohammed was a deputy commander in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — Pakistan's Taliban Movement — leading the network's operations in the Bajur and Mohmand tribal regions. He also was close to al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who along with Osama bin Laden is suspected of using Pakistan's tribal badlands as a hide-out.

Two intelligence officials also said that Mohammed was believed dead and that about two dozen insurgents had died in Friday's airstrike.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said they were confident of their information, but warned that the remote, dangerous nature of the region made it nearly impossible to offer a definitive confirmation at this stage.

A Pakistani Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

If confirmed, Mohammed's death would be the latest in a series of victories for Pakistan and the U.S. in the battle against Islamist extremists.

Over the past two months, Pakistan has captured several Afghan Taliban leaders hiding on its soil, intelligence officials have said. Among them is Mullah Baradar, the top deputy to Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban's supreme chief.

The U.S. has relied heavily on missile strikes to take out targets in the tribal areas, often aiming for al-Qaida operatives, but also broadening its targets to include Pakistani Taliban leaders.

A January U.S. missile strike is believed to have killed Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud. The Taliban have denied that, but have not provided any evidence to prove he is still alive.

Last year, after then-Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was reported killed in an August U.S. missile strike, Mohammed declared that he was taking over the group on a temporary basis.

There were suggestions, however, that the move rankled others in the Pakistani Taliban, making Mohammed's final status in the network somewhat murky after Hakimullah Mehsud was selected as the heir to Baitullah.

The Pakistani Taliban have staged numerous attacks that have killed hundreds across Pakistan, and they are suspected to aid militants involved in attacks across the border in Afghanistan. The group is also a prime suspect in the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan in late December.

Bajur and to some extent Mohmand have come under fierce assault by Pakistani army and paramilitary forces. Just days ago, a top general declared for the second time in a year that Bajur was cleared of militants.

Pakistan has waged multiple army offensives throughout the tribal belt, though it has avoided pushing into North Waziristan, the stronghold of several militant groups that have focused on defeating U.S. troops in Afghanistan rather than taking on the Pakistani state.