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QUETTA, July 24: Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander, blew himself up on Tuesday during a raid by the security forces in Zhob, a border town some 350kms northwest of here.

Four of the militant’s associates were arrested by the security forces after a heavy exchange of fire, said an official who confirmed the killing of Abdullah Mehsud.

“The body of Abdullah Mehsud was found in the house of a JUI-F leader,” a security official told Dawn.

Interior ministry spokesman Brig (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema confirmed the killing of Abdullah Mehsud.

At a press briefing in Islamabad, Brig Cheema termed the killing a tremendous achievement of the security forces as he was `one of the most wanted terrorists’ in the world.

“We are 200 per cent sure that Abdullah Mehsud has died,” the spokesman said in reply to a question expressing scepticism over the government’s claim.

“We had information about the arrival of Abdullah Mehsud in Zhob and for the last three days his activities were being watched,” he said.

The spokesman said Mehsud had been staying at a house in Zhob along with his three accomplices and when the police raided the house, he blew himself to avoid being taken alive.

Brig Cheema said the three accomplices of the Taliban commander had been arrested and they were being interrogated by the security agencies.

In reply to a question about the objective of Mehsud’s visit to Zhob, he said `we have not not been able to ascertain it so far’.

Balochistan’s Inspector General of Police, Tariq Mehmood Khosa, refused to comment.

Security was beefed up in Zhob and on Balochistan’s border with Waziristan after the killing of Abdullah Mehsud, the most important Taliban commander in the country after Baitullah Mehsud.

According to sources, personnel of the Anti-Terrorist Force (ATF) and the Frontier Corps moved to the outskirts of Zhob early in the morning and cordoned off the house of a local JUI-F leader, Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel, believed to be a Taliban sympathiser.

The troops asked the people living in the house to surrender. But the people inside started firing on the security personnel, who returned the fire. The gunbattle lasted about 30 minutes.

The sources said that a huge blast was heard during the clash, after which the troops entered the house. Four persons surrendered soon after.

“But a man identified as Abdullah Mehsud blew himself up to avoid arrest,” Miran Jan, the District Coordination Officer, told Dawn.

“We found the body of a young man with a small beard who blew himself up in a room of the house,” a senior security official said.

The body of Abdullah Mehsud was shifted to a military hospital.

The four arrested persons — Abdul Rehman Mehsud, Shiekh Mohammad Azam Mandokhel, the bother of Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel, his son and a nephew — were handed over to the authorities for interrogation, the sources said.

Ayub Mandokhel was not present in the house at the time of the raid.

LEAD: Sources said that two men arrested a few days ago spoke about `frequent visits’ of `some Taliban commanders’ to Zhob.

Security agencies put the house of Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel under observation after the clue.

“Abdullah Mehsud arrived in Zhob from Waziristan with his brother just one day before his death,” the sources said.

They said the operation was approved after a `tip-off’ by an intelligence agency.

Abdullah Mehsud and other Taliban leaders used to visit Zhob frequently, putting up in the house of Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel, a local resident, Gul Baran Khan, told Dawn by telephone from Zhob.

However, the officials concerned said they had no such information.

Mehsud, 31, was released from the Guantanamo Bay in March 2004 after two years in captivity.

After his return to Pakistan, he kidnapped two Chinese engineers working in South Waziristan. Sources said that he was wanted for attacking and killing FC personnel and kidnapping other officials.

They said that Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel was the general secretary of JUI-F’s Zhob chapter. He had developed serious differences with the party’s high command over support to the Taliban and in June this year, the party expelled Mr Jamal Shah Kakar, a Mandokhel sympathiser and the Balochistan Assembly speaker, from the JUI-F.

Balochistan JUI’s chief Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani said the party had revoked the membership of Ayub Mandokhel in April. “We do not patronise militants as the JUI-F is a political party which believes in political struggle,” he said.

DISCLAIMER: Alam Khan Mandokhel, a cousin of Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel, has denied that his family has any links with the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Speaking at a press conference in Zhob on Tuesday night, he said: “We have nothing to do with the Taliban or the Al Qaeda.”

He recalled that two persons knocked at their gate on Monday night and in accordance with Pukhtun tradition, the children of the family opened the rest house (Mehman Khana) for them.

“We heard gunshots around 7.30pm and later a blast rocked the house,” Alam Mandokhel said. After some time, `we came to know that a man blew himself up inside a portion of our house’.