The Pakistani Taliban refused Tuesday to provide proof their leader survived a U.S. missile attack, just one day after promising to do just that. The reversal added to speculation that Hakimullah Mehsud was mortally wounded last month in a strike close to the Afghan border.
The backtracking came on a day in which U.S. drones launched an unusually intense attack in the northwest. The aircraft fired as many as 18 missiles at houses, cars and bunkers in a region dominated by militants battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, killing more than at least 17 insurgents, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The late-night missile strikes were the latest in an intensified CIA-led campaign in Pakistan, reflecting a U.S. belief that the eight-year war in Afghanistan cannot be turned around without the destruction of militant safe havens across the border.
The death of Mehsud, who commands the Pakistan branch of the Taliban, would be a major blow to an al-Qaida-allied movement blamed for scores of suicide bombings in this country and suspected in a deadly attack on the CIA late last year just across the border in Afghanistan.
In a video broadcast last month, Hakimullah Mehsud sat next to the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in the Dec. 30 attack. The bomber said the attack was meant to avenge the death of Hakimullah Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in a CIA missile strike.
His terror network, which has links to Afghan Taliban groups based in Pakistan, was recently driven from its sanctuary in the Pakistani border region of South Waziristan by one of the most intensive Pakistan military offensives ever against the militants.
While most of the leadership apparently survived the operation, they are on the run, being hammered by American missiles and have little public support.
Dead or alive?
Hakimullah Mehsud was first reported dead on Sunday as a result of injuries suffered in a mid-January missile strike in South Waziristan. Pakistani and U.S. officials have neither confirmed nor denied the report. The Taliban have issued several denials.
On Monday, a commander promised to provide proof — either a video or a tape recording — that Hakimullah Mehsud was alive, but militant spokesman Azam Tariq told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the group now felt no need to do so.
There was speculation Tuesday that the group was stalling in announcing Hakimullah Mehsud's death to give it time to determine a successor. A similar situation played out in August when Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike in South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban denied his death for almost three weeks, admitting it only after Hakimullah was chosen as his heir.
The CIA has launched more than 70 missile attacks into the tribal region over the last 18 months, killing scores of militants but also many civilians, according to accounts from witnesses and Pakistani officials. There was a surge in attacks after the suicide bombing at the CIA base, though they have tapered off somewhat in recent days.
The drones that struck Tuesday fired missiles at four compounds, two vehicles and bunkers in the Degan area of North Waziristan, said intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. The identities of the dead were not known, but some foreigners were believed among them, they said.
North Waziristan is the base for the most aggressive Afghan Taliban faction led by legendary warrior Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin. The U.S. military believes the Haqqani group is the most dangerous and ideologically committed of the Taliban factions, responsible for the Jan. 18 suicide attack in central Kabul and last year's assault on a guest house used by U.N. workers that left 11 people dead.
Talks with insurgents
Washington is supporting Afghan moves to reconcile with lower-level Taliban fighters along with moderate higher-level members of the regime toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled to Saudi Arabia to seek support for talks with the insurgents. The Saudis say they would not get involved unless the Taliban sever ties with al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, five American terrorism suspects alleged that they were subjected to electric shocks and other forms of torture by the FBI and Pakistani police during interrogations in central Pakistan. The men from the Washington area are accused of traveling to Pakistan to join militant groups here and in Afghanistan.
The Americans, arrested on suspicion of terrorism, made some of their allegations on a note tossed to reporters as they headed to their latest hearing in court in Sargodha, a town in Punjab province.
"Since our arrest, the U.S. FBI and Pakistani police have tortured us," read the message. "They are trying to set us up. We are innocent. They are trying to keep us away from public, media and families and lawyers. Help us!"
Pakistani authorities denied mistreating the men two weeks ago when they made similar, but less detailed allegations. U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire denied the allegations of torture by the FBI, whose agents have had access to the men.