Washington (AFP) Feb 4, 2010
Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was likely killed in US missile strikes but there was still no definitive evidence that he was dead, a US defense official told AFP on Thursday.
"There's a good likelihood that he's dead," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But final confirmation would have to wait "until a body pops up, or photographic evidence ... or reliable witnesses" verify reports.
US missile attacks have repeatedly targeted Mehsud, the head of Pakistan's most powerful Taliban faction and involved in a December suicide attack on the CIA in Afghanistan -- the deadliest attack on the US spy agency in 26 years.
Speculation about his death has mounted since a January 14 US drone strike in the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan, near the Afghan border, but Mehsud purportedly released two audio statements denying his demise.
On January 17, a day after Mehsud's last statement, a US drone carried out another attack that officials said also targeted the militant leader.
A US counter-terrorism official said rumors were taking root because Mehsud had been out of view.
"As more and more time passes without this major terrorist -- one of the worst people in the world -- making any kind of appearance, the rumors of his demise become more deeply seated," said the official, who asked not to be named.
"That's apparently prompted some to speculate he's gone. I certainly hope they're right," he said.
Killing Mehsud would be a coup for the United States, which stepped up its drone war in Pakistan after the warlord claimed the December 30 bombing that killed five CIA officers and two contractors in southeastern Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials said they were seeking confirmation of differing reports about his possible demise -- published by The New York Times and briefly on Pakistan's state television Sunday. The Taliban have flatly denied he is dead.
There were reports Mehsud was wounded when a US missile hit his vehicle on January 14 in the Shaktoi area of North Waziristan.
He was reportedly taken more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) to Orakzai, elsewhere in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt for medical help but a Pakistani intelligence official told AFP that the doctor in question denied treating him.
"It could be Mehsud's own bluffing game. The report may have been circulated to divert US attention because he was being repeatedly chased and targeted by the US spy planes," he said.
A Pakistani military official said there were other unconfirmed reports that Mehsud was wounded when a Pakistani helicopter shelled suspected Taliban hideouts in the Mamoonzai area of Orakzai last week.
Pakistan, which has been fighting off accusations from the United States about not doing enough to eradicate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda menace on its soil, has a 50-million-rupee (600,000-dollar) price on Mehsud's head.
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