By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009
Baitullah Mehsud, the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban commander who rose to become one of Pakistan's most feared terrorists, may have been killed in a U.S. airstrike inside Pakistan this week, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Hours after reports of Mehsud's death began to circulate in Pakistan, U.S. counterterrorism officials said they were evaluating evidence that appeared to support the claims.
"There is reason to believe that reports of his death may be true, but it can't be confirmed at this time," said one U.S. official briefed on the evidence.
Mehsud was apparently the intended target of a missile strike early Wednesday on a house in northwestern Pakistan occupied by several of the Taliban commander's relatives and his parents-in-law. News reports from Pakistan said four people were killed, including one of Mehsud's wives.
On Thursday, Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, said officials suspected that Mehsud had died along with his wife and bodyguards.
"We have some information, but we don't have material evidence to confirm it," Malik told reporters in Islamabad.
The CIA declines to comment on its operations inside Pakistan, though the spy agency is known to have been behind dozens of missile strikes in the autonomous tribal region near the border with Afghanistan in the past year. Neither the agency nor other U.S. counterterrorism officials would elaborate Thursday on where and how Mehsud may have been killed.
Until this week, Mehsud -- considered Public Enemy No. 1 in Pakistan because of alleged ties to numerous deadly terrorist attacks -- had been noted for his many narrow escapes. He appears to have been the target of at least three strikes by CIA Predator unmanned aircraft in the past two years, including an attack on a Taliban funeral in June that killed dozens of insurgents in the border province of South Waziristan. Mehsud left the area shortly before the missile was launched, according to Pakistani officials and local media reports.
"Taking Mehsud off the battlefield would be a major victory," a U.S. counterterrorism official said Thursday. "He has actively plotted against the United States. Indeed, he has American blood on his hands with attacks on our forces in Afghanistan. The world, and certainly Pakistan, would be a safer place without him."
In March, the U.S. State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for Mehsud's death or capture.
Mehsud has been the leader since 2007 of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a coalition of Taliban factions loyal to Afghanistan's Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar. An ally of al-Qaeda, Mehsud commands as many as 20,000 fighters in Pakistan's rugged northwestern frontier region and has directed or supported numerous suicide bombings in Pakistan, including a deadly attack last year on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, U.S. intelligence officials said.
The Pakistani government and the CIA have identified Mehsud as the chief suspect in the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in 2007 while campaigning for office. Mehsud has denied responsibility for her death.
Wednesday's missile strike occurred about 1 a.m. in Zanghra, a village in South Waziristan. Local residents told government officials and reporters that the missile was fired by a remotely piloted aircraft similar to the ones used in the region by the CIA.
In addition to the four deaths, at least five people were wounded in the attack, including four children, according to local news media accounts.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.