The Pakistani government was investigating reports Sunday that Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud died from injuries sustained in a U.S. drone missile strike launched in mid-January after he helped orchestrate a deadly bombing against the CIA in Afghanistan.
Mehsud's predecessor was killed in a missile strike less than six months ago, and inflicting another blow to the militant group's leadership would be an important success for both Pakistan and the U.S.
The U.S. unleashed more than a dozen drone strikes in the month following the Dec. 30 suicide bombing against the CIA in Afghanistan, and Mehsud's death would be further proof of the ability of the unmanned aircraft to target Taliban and al-Qaida leaders holed up in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.
Pakistani government officials said they were investigating whether Mehsud was mortally wounded in one of those strikes after state television reported that he died in Orakzai, an area in Pakistan's tribal region where he was supposedly being treated for his injuries.
"We have these reports coming to us," army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press. "We are investigating whether it is true or wrong."
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the state TV report relied on "local sources" in Orakzai that the government could not confirm.
"But the local tribal elders there and the local population say that he has been buried," Malik told ARY News TV.
Funeral service alleged
A tribal elder told the AP that he attended Mehsud's funeral in the Mamuzai area of Orakzai on Thursday, after Mehsud died at his in-laws' home. The elder spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the Taliban.
Pakistani intelligence officials had said that Mehsud was targeted in a U.S. drone strike against a meeting of militant commanders in South Waziristan on Jan. 14, triggering rumors that he had been injured or killed.
Mehsud issued an audio tape after the strike directly denying the rumors, and his voice sounded strong. But Pakistani intelligence officials told the AP on Sunday that they had confirmation that the Taliban chief's legs and abdomen were wounded in the strike.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Pakistani Taliban officials were not immediately available for comment, but low-level fighters have dismissed rumors of Mehsud's death in recent days as propaganda.
The drone strike that targeted Mehsud came after he appeared in a video beside the Jordanian man who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide bombing at a remote base in Afghanistan. The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, said he carried out the attack in retribution for the death of former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike last August.
The U.S. refuses to talk about the covert CIA-run drone program in Pakistan, but officials have said privately that the strikes have killed several senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.
Pakistani officials publicly protest the strikes as violations of the country's sovereignty, but U.S. officials say privately they support the program, especially when it targets militants like Mehsud who the government believes are a threat to the state.
Mehsud, who has the reputation as a particularly ruthless militant, took over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban soon after Baitullah Mehsud's death.
The 28 year-old militant leader has focused most of his attacks against targets inside Pakistan, but his men have also been blamed for attacking U.S. and NATO supply convoys traveling through the country en route to Afghanistan.
Hakimullah Mehsud first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008, when he offered to take reporters in Orakzai on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck headed to Afghanistan. He was the Pakistani Taliban's regional commander in the Orakzai, Khyber and Mohmand tribal areas before taking over the organization.
He has taken responsibility for a wave of brazen strikes inside Pakistan, including the bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in the northwestern city of Peshawar last June and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier that year. There is a 50 million rupee ($590,000) bounty on his head.
The Pakistani Taliban stepped up its attacks after the army invaded its stronghold of South Waziristan in mid-October. More than 600 people have been killed in attacks throughout the country since the ground offensive was launched.
Pakistani officials have said some of the militants have fled to neighboring North Waziristan, an area dominated by groups launching cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The government struck deals with the leaders of two of those groups, Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir, before the army invaded South Waziristan, promising not to target the militants if they stayed on the sidelines.
An umbrella group that includes the two militants and the Pakistani Taliban issued a pamphlet in North Waziristan on Sunday accusing the government of violating the agreement and warning it would trigger a major war if it launched any kind of military operation in the area.
The pamphlet issued by the Shura-e-Ittehad-ul-Mujahedeen, or United Council of Holy Warriors, said the government violated the agreement in various ways, including by creating a network of spies in North Waziristan who help the U.S. kill militants in drone attacks.
"We have tolerated all sorts of mistreatment, but now we are not going to accept any kind of military operation in even our smallest area," said the pamphlet, a copy of which was obtained by the AP.
The Pakistani army has said it cannot launch another major operation for at least six months, but it has carried out two strikes in North Waziristan in the past two weeks.