DERA ISMAIL KHAN, PAKISTAN — The Pakistani Taliban confirmed the death of their leader in a U.S. drone strike Saturday, a day after he was killed, as the group’s leadership council met to begin the process of choosing a successor.
The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, a ruthless leader known for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of the security forces, is a heavy blow for the militant group.
The drone strike came as the Pakistan government tries to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, as the militant group Mehsud headed was formally called. Already the strike threatened to worsen U.S.-Pakistan relations as the Pakistani government’s information minister criticized the U.S. for jeopardizing the peace talks.
“What we can say is this time the drone (strike) was on the dialogue, but we will not let the dialogue die,” Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said.
Azam Tariq, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman in the South Waziristan tribal area, provided the first official confirmation of Mehsud’s death.
“We are proud of the martyrdom of Hakimullah Mehsud,” Tariq told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. “We will continue our activities.”
Mehsud and the other four militants killed in the strike were buried Saturday at an undisclosed location, Taliban commanders said. Drones still flew over North Waziristan on Saturday. Witnesses in the towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah reported that Mehsud’s supporters fired at them in anger.
The Taliban’s Shura Council, a group of commanders representing various wings of the group, gathered at an undisclosed location Saturday in the North Waziristan tribal area, intelligence officials and militant commander said. That’s the same region where a U.S. drone strike killed Mehsud on Friday.
The Shura will continue to meet for a few days before it makes a decision, said Tariq, the Taliban spokesman.
The two main candidates to succeed Mehsud are Khan Sayed, the Pakistani Taliban leader in the South Waziristan tribal area, and Mullah Fazlullah, the chief in the northwest Swat Valley, said Pakistani intelligence officials and Taliban commanders interviewed by phone.
Omar Khalid Khurasani, who heads the group’s wing in the Mohmand tribal area, is also in the running, militant commanders said. He was not believed to be a strong candidate.
Several Taliban commanders reported that a majority of Shura members voted for Sayed, but they were still waiting for commanders from remote areas to arrive. One commander said the Shura chose a caretaker chief, Sheharyar Mehsud, to lead until the group chooses a permanent successor.
All the officials and the commanders spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to media.
A leadership struggle broke out after Hakimullah Mehsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in 2009, and it took the group a couple weeks to choose a new leader. It’s unclear if a similar leadership struggle is underway now.
Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a village outside Miran Shah when multiple missiles slammed into a compound just after a vehicle carrying the militant commander arrived. The other militants killed were identified as Mehsud’s cousin, uncle and one of his guards. The identity of the fourth militant is not yet known.
Mehsud gained a reputation as a merciless planner of suicide attacks in Pakistan. After taking over as the Pakistani Taliban’s leader, he tried to internationalize the group’s focus.
He’s believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan and a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square, as well as assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and members of security forces.
Mehsud was on the U.S. most-wanted terrorist lists with a $5 million bounty.
He also increased coordination with al-Qaida and Pakistani militants, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and funded the group’s many attacks by raising money through extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery.
“This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban which may spark internal fractures in the movement,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped craft the agency’s drone campaign.
“Since the Taliban are a key al-Qaida ally it will be a setback for them as well,” said Riedel, who now runs the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s intelligence project.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in part on promises to bring peace to the country through negotiations instead of more military operations. On Thursday, Sharif had said talks with the militants were underway.
A senior Pakistani security official said a delegation was to travel Saturday to North Waziristan to convey a message from the government about starting the talks. But the official said the delegation would now not be going.
He said the delegation contained no one serving in the government, but refused to share details about its membership.
Mehsud’s death will complicate efforts by the government to negotiate a peace deal. After a drone strike killed the group’s No. 2 in May, the Tehreek-e-Taliban fiercely rejected any idea of peace talks and accused the government of cooperating with the U.S.
Pakistani officials regularly criticize the attacks as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, but the government is known to have supported some strikes in the past.
“We have properly understood the duel policy of the Pakistani government and its hypocrisy,” said Tariq, the Taliban spokesman, on Saturday.
In recent weeks, the TTP appeared to soften its position against talks but had still made multiple demands for preconditions to any negotiating, including the end of drone strikes in the tribal areas.
Popular politician Imran Khan has been one of the most vocal critics of the strikes. His party runs the government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and has threatened to block trucks carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan unless the attacks stop.
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Khan said the U.S. had sabotaged the efforts to bring peace to Pakistan, and his party would push the provincial assembly to adopt a resolution to block the NATO supplies.
“Dialogue has been broken with this drone attack,” said Khan.
Dawar reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Associated Press writer Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.