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PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — A suspected U.S. drone strike Wednesday killed the No. 2 commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani intelligence officials said, although the militant group denied he was killed.
If confirmed, the death of Waliur Rehman would be a strong blow to the militant group responsible for hundreds of bombings and shootings across Pakistan. Officials said the strike, in the country’s tribal areas, killed a total of four people.
Two of the officials said their informants in the field saw Rehman’s body while a third said intelligence authorities had intercepted communications between militants saying Rehman was killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, however, denied the reports.
“This appears to me to be false news. I don’t have any such information,” said Ahsanullah Ahsan, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Most of North Waziristan is under militant control, and journalists do not have access to the area, making it difficult to independently confirm such incidents.
The strike was the first since Pakistan’s landmark elections May 11 in which the American drone program was a hotly debated topic.
It was also the first strike in Pakistan since President Barack Obama’s speech last Thursday during which he discussed more restrictive rules he was implementing on the use of the controversial drones in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.
The tribal region in northwestern Pakistan is home to a variety of local and Afghan militant outfits, including al-Qaida-linked fighters. The U.S. has often criticized Pakistan, saying it does not vigorously target militants in these areas who then attack American troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials say their military is already overtaxed by fighting militants in both the tribal regions and in the southwestern province of Baluchistan and that the casualties they’ve already incurred have not been properly recognized.
Washington’s drone program is extremely unpopular in Pakistan, although the number of strikes has dropped significantly since the height of the program in 2010.
The strikes usually target al-Qaida-linked insurgents or other militants who fight in Afghanistan against NATO, although some strikes have killed militants who are at war with the Pakistani government.
The Pakistani Taliban has been battling government forces for years in a bid to push them from the tribal regions, cut Pakistan’s ties with the U.S. and eventually establish their brand of hardline Islam across Pakistan.
The U.S. government in 2010 offered $5 million for information leading to Rehman under their “Rewards for Justice” program.
While Rehman was mostly known for his activities in Pakistan, the U.S. said in its announcement that he also participated in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO personnel.
Rehman was wanted in connection with his involvement in an attack on a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven Americans, the U.S. said.
Pakistan’s incoming prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has repeatedly said he is against the use of American drones on Pakistani soil, and Pakistani officials have demanded publicly that the program be stopped.
Senior civilian and military officials are known to have supported some of the attacks in the past, but many say that is no longer the case.
Pakistan has been hit by 355 such attacks since 2004, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank. The figure does not include Wednesday’s strike. Up to 3,336 people have died in the strikes, said the think tank.
Obama’s speech last Thursday was his most extensive comments to date about the secretive drone program, which has come under increased criticism for its lack of accountability.
The president cast drone strikes against Islamic militants as crucial to U.S. counterterrorism efforts but acknowledged that they are not a “cure-all.” The president also said he is deeply troubled by civilians unintentionally killed in the strikes and announced more restrictive rules governing the attacks — measures that his advisers said would effectively limit drone use in the future.
Shahzad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press reporter Rebecca Santana in Islamabad also contributed to this report.