The head of Pakistan's Taliban had joined a funeral procession targeted in a suspected U.S. missile strike, but left before the attack that killed 80 people mourning those struck down by an earlier barrage on a militant training camp, intelligence officials said Wednesday.
A top Taliban aide denied Baitullah Mehsud was anywhere near the missile strike — among the deadliest in an ongoing campaign — and said all but five of the dead were civilians. The intelligence officials, however, said several senior Taliban militants were killed.
Mehsud, accused of plotting suicide bombings and the assassination Tuesday of his chief rival, is the target of a looming offensive by Pakistan's military in the South Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
Suspected missile strikes killed several people at a purported Taliban training center early Tuesday, then another barrage rained down on a funeral procession for some of those killed in the first attack.
Two intelligence officials said Wednesday that although Mehsud had visited the village where the funeral took place, he left before the drone-fired missiles killed 80 people and wounded dozens more. The two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media, said it was unclear how long before the attack Mehsud left.
Intelligence officials had said Tuesday that militants lost contact with Mehsud for a while. Media reports suggested he had a very close call.
Pakistan's airstrikes draw criticism
But Qari Hussain, a close associate of Mehsud, denied those reports.
"Baitullah Mehsud was at a secret place at the time of the American missile attack, and the attack killed only five of our colleagues, and the remaining 45 slain men were villagers," he told The Associated Press.
Dozens of airstrikes have been carried out in the tribal regions over the last year, drawing criticism from Pakistan's leaders that they jeopardize the military operation by firing up an already raging anti-Americanism.
Meanwhile, Islamabad police chief Kalim Imam said Wednesday that police are holding 25 suspects on suspicion they were planning acts of terrorism or were behind bomb attacks across the country.
"We got hold of them through good intelligence," Imam told reporters.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said two of them were arrested three days ago on suspicion they wanted to attack Parliament and an elite intelligence agency.
Two senior security officials said other potential targets of the 25 included the office of Pakistan's main spy agency and some embassies. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to media.
Ahead of an impending military operation, clashes continued Wednesday in the volatile northwest, with a rocket attack at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar killing three officers, local police chief Yasin Khan said. Three rockets were fired at a military base in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, triggering a shootout but no known casualties.
The upcoming assault will focus on Mehsud, who reportedly has up to 12,000 men under his control, entrenched in the lawless tribal areas. The campaign has been preceded by aerial and artillery bombardment, and Malik, the interior minister, said 65,000 displaced people have already moved from South Waziristan to North Waziristan, where they are living with friends and relatives.
In a sign of internal divisions in the Taliban as it braces for the assault, Mehsud's chief rival was shot dead in his office by one of his own guards on Tuesday. Waliur Rehman, a Mehsud aide, claimed responsibility for the assassination of Qari Zainuddin, who he said was killed for working against the interests of the Pakistani Taliban.
Zainuddin, who broke with Mehsud in 2007, was estimated to have about 3,000 armed followers. He recently criticized Mehsud for using suicide bombings to target civilians.
Mehsud is also accused of masterminding the December 2007 gun-and-suicide bomb attack that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, though he has denied it.
Bhutto's husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, took over leadership of her party after her death and rode a wave of support for her legacy to power.
Although Zainuddin was never seen as a serious challenger to Mehsud, the government had clearly hoped his outspoken criticism of the Taliban leader would foster others to defect and help the army with tips on where to find him.
His slaying sets back government hopes of exploiting these internal divisions.
Despite some divisions, the renegade Taliban agree on the need to fight U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Mehsud has humbled the Pakistani army in past battles and has been closing ranks this year by forging fresh alliances with other powerful Taliban leaders and killing off opponents.
The Obama administration supports anti-militant operations, seeing them as a measure of Pakistan's resolve in combating a growing insurgency. The battle could also help the war in Afghanistan because militants have launched cross-border attacks on coalition troops there.