A rare photograph of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, left, as he met with reporters in South Waziristan in May 2008. Photograph: EPA
The Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud has been killed in a CIA missile strike, the Pakistani government and a senior Taliban commander said today.
“He has been taken out,” the country’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told reporters in Islamabad.
Kafayat Ullah, a senior Mehsud aide, told the Associated Press by telephone: “I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan.”
The statements followed hours of strong indications from officials that the notorious militant commander was killed on Wednesday morning after an unmanned US aircraft fired Hellfire missiles at the remote farmhouse where he was sheltering.
Pakistani television channels, quoting intelligence sources, said he had already been buried in his home village, Narkosai, near the strike site along the Afghan border.
Mehsud’s death represents a quantum leap for Pakistan‘s war against the violent Islamist networks that have badly destabilised the country. Mehsud’s Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) controls wide swaths of territory and draws together Taliban, al-Qaida and home-grown jihadi fighters.
Qureshi said full confirmation was not possible until authorities reached South Waziristan, the lawless area where the missiles struck. It is currently crawling with Taliban fighters.
The strongest indication came from events on the ground. Violent recriminations erupted in Tank, a town on the edge of South Waziristan, where clashes between pro- and anti-Baitullah factions of the Mehsud tribe left 19 people dead, according to early reports.
Local television stations reported that Mehsud’s TTP plans to hold a leadership council today to elect a successor. Mehsud’s most senior lieutenant, Hakeemullah Mehsud, is the favourite candidate.
“It looks like this chapter is probably closed,” said Imtiaz Gul, an analyst.
Mehsud’s death is the culmination of an intense assassination campaign this year. His network has been targeted by nine of the last 10 US drone strikes in the tribal belt, while the Pakistan army mobilised thousands of troops in preparation for a possible assault on South Waziristan.
Early reports after Wednesday’s strike indicated that Mehsud’s second wife was killed in the house, which belonged to his father-in-law. Speculation about the fate of Mehsud himself rose steadily as intelligence officials sifted intercepts that indicated disarray in militant circles.
Thought to have been 39 years old, Mehsud was the most notorious militant commander in Pakistan – much more prominent than Osama bin Laden, who is also believed to be hiding along the Afghan border.
The TTP has frightened and revolted Pakistanis with suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of soldiers, police, intelligence officials and civilians. The TTP has up to 20,000 fighters, according to some estimates, and its territory stretches the length of the tribal belt.
Mehsud took pleasure in teasing the authorities with their failure to kill or capture him. Most famously he invited dozens of journalists to a press conference in South Waziristan in 2008, a few days after the army had flown journalists to the same area.
He modelled himself on the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to whom he pledged loyalty. Like Omar, Mehsud refused to have his photo taken.
He denied CIA accusations of responsibility for the December 2007 assassination of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. A UN panel is investigating the killing.
There have been false reports of Mehsud’s demise before, some connected to his diseased kidney. A Pakistani tribal leader who met Mehsud last year told the Guardian he was accompanied by a doctor tending to his illness.
Today Pakistani soldiers stepped up security along the fringes of the tribal belt to prevent suicide bombers conducting revenge attacks in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
The turning point in the pursuit of Mehsud was increased US-Pakistani cooperation. In recent months the US has targeted him with covert drone strikes and put a $5m bounty on his head. The Pakistani government offered $650,000.
There have been at least 29 drone strikes in Pakistan this year as the Obama administration continues with a contentious Bush-era tactic that balances damage to al-Qaida and Taliban networks against the death of innocent civilians and rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
The US had been slow to target Mehsud, who concentrated his suicide bombing attacks on Pakistani cities, because he was considered a minor player in the cross-border Taliban insurgency against western troops in Afghanistan.
His death leaves the Taliban movement dominated by two other commanders: Qari Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan. Both have adopted a lower public profile by focusing on cross-border raids.