Taliban in turmoil after shootout

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Taliban appeared in turmoil after reports of a deadly shootout between contenders to replace the shadowy movement's leader, who is believed to have been killed in a US drone attack.

Intelligence officials said Friday that Baitullah Mehsud, who had a five-million-dollar bounty on his head, was killed in the US missile attack.

Pakistan's government said it was still seeking confirmation, although a top US security official was quoted as saying Sunday that the US believed Mehsud had been killed.

US national security adviser Jim Jones put the level of US certainty that Baitullah Mehsud died Wednesday in a US missile strike "in the 90 percent category."

"Pakistan has confirmed it. We know that there reports from the Mehsud tribe that he wasn't. But the evidence is pretty conclusive," Jones said in an interview with NBC News.

"This is a big deal," Jones said.

He said it meant that US efforts to forge closer security ties with the Pakistani military were "moving in the right direction," and that the Pakistanis were "doing quite well in terms of their fight against extremism."

"Baitullah was the public enemy number one in Pakistan, so its their biggest target," he said.

There were also unconfirmed reports of a deadly shooting at a meeting of top Taliban commanders who convened to discuss the choice of a successor to Mehsud.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the reports from the meeting in the lawless region of South Waziristan were being investigated.

The commanders were reportedly Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud and the warlord's main spokesman, and Wali-ur Rehman, a senior commander in Mehsud's umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement.

"We have reports that there was fighting between Wali-ur Rehman and Hakimullah.... I said earlier that one of them is dead. I will not disclose the name. I am seeking verification," Malik told private Pakistani TV channel Geo.

"The (shooting) incident took place on Friday and I said in the National Assembly the same day that there was internal fighting between Wali-ur Rehman and Hakimullah," he said.

However, someone claiming to be Hakimullah Mehsud called up media outlets on Saturday to claim that Baitullah Mehsud was still alive. The two men are part of the same tribe.

Despite the apparent internal turmoil among the Taliban, security analyst Hasan Askari warned the threat was not over and said Pakistani authorities would have to re-establish control in the tribal areas.

"The current situation practically shows that the government also does not really have access to the area, which makes it difficult to verify the information that is coming through diverse sources," Askari said.

However, he said he believed that the TTP had "entered an uncertain phase due to a leadership crisis which may heighten internal conflict."

Baitullah Mehsud, branded by Washington as "a key Al-Qaeda facilitator", had reportedly narrowly escaped previous attacks.

He was at the top of the Pakistani government's most-wanted list, having been implicated in the 2007 assassination of prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose husband is now president.

Mehsud went on to lead a campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations and insurgent attacks that swept out of the border tribal areas into the Swat valley, threatening Islamabad.

The US Central Intelligence Agency, with the tacit cooperation of Islamabad, has carried out dozens of attacks in Pakistan using unmanned Predator and Reaper drones over the past year, but declines to discuss the strikes publicly.

Northwest Pakistan's anarchic tribal areas have been beset by violence since neighbouring Afghanistan's Taliban regime was toppled by the 2001 US-led invasion, prompting hundreds of fighters to flood the region.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama's national security advisor told a TV news programme that the United States believed Mehsud had been killed.

"We think so," Jim Jones told "Fox News Sunday" when asked if Mehsud was dead.

"The Pakistani government believes he is and all the evidence we have suggests that," he said.

Jones said he could not confirm that there had been a shootout between the Pakistan Taliban's leadership rivals.

"We've heard stories about that. I can't confirm it. It certainly appears there is dissension in the ranks. That's not a bad thing for us," Jones said.

Meanwhile, at least 21 people were killed in the latest violence in Taliban hotspots, officials said.

A gunfight late Saturday between militants and supporters of a pro-government tribal elder killed six militants and two tribesmen in the Mohmand tribal region near the Afghan border, they said.

Separately, two civilians and a policeman were killed when militants ambushed a police convoy in the northwestern town of Bannu on Sunday.

Also on Sunday, two Pakistani soldiers were killed and four were wounded near Naurak village in the troubled North Waziristan tribal district when a remote-control bomb targeting a military convoy exploded, officials said.

At least eight dead bodies of suspected Taliban militants were found in different areas of the northwestern Swat valley Sunday, officials said.

In late April, Pakistan launched a blistering air and ground offensive designed to dislodge Taliban from in and around Swat after rebels flouted a peace deal and advanced towards Islamabad.