PESHAWAR/KARACHI: Hakimullah Mehsud, chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in the North Waziristan tribal region on Friday, intelligence officials and the Pakistani Taliban said.
Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted the vehicle he was travelling in.
Drones continued to fly over North Waziristan on Saturday. Witnesses in the towns of Mir Ali and Miramshah reported that Mehsud's supporters were firing at them in anger.
Pakistani Taliban militants said funerals for the TTP chief and other militants killed in the drone strike were held on Saturday in various parts of North Waziristan.
They further said that a meeting of the Taliban central shura (council) was underway at an undisclosed location to decide over the next leader of the militant organisation adding that their decision in this regards was expected to be made today.
Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed.
Some of the sources said that a cousin and a paternal uncle of the proscribed organisation's chief were among those killed in the drone strike.
Taliban sources told Dawn.com that Hakimullah was shifted to a hospital in the wake of the drone attack but succumbed to his injuries on the way.
In the first eyewitness account of his death, a Taliban fighter said on Saturday that leader Hakimullah Mehsud's body was “damaged but recognisable” after a US drone strike hit his vehicle,
Locals said the drones had been carrying out low flights in various parts of North Waziristan since Friday morning.
The area of Dande Darpakhel is located five kilometres (three miles) north of Miramshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region, and is said to be a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.
Friday's strike came nearly a day after three insurgents were killed in another drone attack that also targeted a militant compound near Miramshah. The US unmanned plane was still flying in the area after the attack.
Mehsud has been reported dead several times before. But late on Friday, his death in the drone strike in the North Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan was confirmed by several intelligence, army and militant sources across the country. Moreover, the Associated Press also quoted a senior US intelligence official as confirming the strike, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that Mehsud had been killed.
Who will succeed Hakimullah
The South Waziristan Taliban chief, Khan Said Sajna alias Khalid, is likely to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as TTP chief.
Chief of Mohmand Taliban Umar Khalid Khurasani is also a strong contender for the slot as he is the only surviving senior Taliban commander who had directly commanded operations under Hakimullah.
Mullah Fazlullah, chief of the Swat Taliban, is another senior commander but unlikely to replace the assassinated TTP chief for not belonging to the Mehsud clan.
The Latif Mehsud arrest
Hakimullah's death in the drone attack came weeks after the arrest of TTP No. 2, Latif Mehsud by American forces in Afghanistan last month was made public.
Latif was arrested as he was driving along a main highway sparking a row between Afghan and American officials.
Some quarters dubbed the arrest as an attempt by Afghanistan to gain leverage over Pakistan by cultivating an alliance with the Pakistani Taliban.
Latif was elevated to the position after a US drone strike had killed the Taliban's then second-in-command, Wali-ur-Rehman, was killed in a drone strike in May this year.
Strongly condemning Friday’s US drone attack in North Waziristan, the Pakistani government reiterated that these strikes are a violation of the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Foreign Office Spokesman Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry in a statement said there was an across the board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end.
He said the government has consistently maintained that drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications. Such strikes also set dangerous precedents in bilateral relations, he added.
The spokesman said these strikes have a negative impact on the mutual desire of both US and Pakistan to forge a cordial and cooperative relationship and to ensure peace and stability in the region.
Condemning the drone strikes, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said these were aimed at sabotaging efforts to establish peace in the country.
“A delegation was about to be sent for talks to the Taliban tomorrow (Saturday),” the minister said hinting that a "senior militant commander" may have been killed in Friday's strike. Nisar's statement came before public confirmation that the senior militant commander was Hakimullah.
Earlier on Friday, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid had said the Taliban had had “no contact” with the government, a day after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said a process to initiate peace talks had begun.
Moreover, speaking in a rare interview with the BBC last month, the TTP chief had said that the Taliban were ready for serious talks with the government and would welcome such an effort.
Reaction from the US
The CIA and the White House declined to comment on the reported death.
Speaking to Dawn, Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the US State Department said: “We have seen those reports but we don’t have anything for you on that. The reports just came out. We have a close cooperative relationship with Pakistan on various issues, including counter-terrorism but I do not have anything specific for you on Pakistan on this report.”
Imran demands govt to block Nato supplies
Reacting to the incident, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan – a strong opponent of US drone strikes – demanded the government to immediately block the Nato supplies going through the country. His party is set to table resolutions in the KP Assembly and the National Assembly on Monday in this regard.
Khan, on Thursday, had said his party had the capability to stop the Nato supplies and warned that his words must not be taken lightly. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one of two routes through which Nato supplies move in and out of Afghanistan.
The incident comes a week after Sharif urged US President Barack Obama to stop drone strikes during a meeting in Washington.
On Wednesday, the defence ministry said 317 US drone strikes in the country's tribal areas had killed 67 civilians and 2,160 militants in Pakistan since 2008.
US drone attacks are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, but Washington sees them as a vital tool in the fight against militants in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has repeatedly protested against drone strikes as a violation of its sovereignty. But privately officials have been reported as saying the attacks can be useful.