Pakistan's most wanted man, Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a CIA drone strike Wednesday morning, according to U.S., Pakistani, and Taliban officials, although some warned that his death would not be confirmed for days.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs could not confirm the death, but called Mehsud a "murderous thug," and added, "if he is dead, without a doubt the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result."
Mehsud was responsible for more than 1,200 deaths in Pakistan in the last two years, according to Pakistani officials, and was the center of a terrorist nexus that allowed al Qaeda, Taliban and jihadi militants to work together to attack both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Local media reported that the Taliban had buried Mehsud and already had a meeting to begin choosing his successor.
Mehsud and his wife were on the roof of Mehsud's father-in-law's house in Makeen, South Waziristan, when the rocket struck, Pakistani and U.S. officials said. His wife was rubbing his diabetes-ravaged legs around 1 a.m. when they were killed. Makeen is Mehsud's birthplace, and a town he is said to occasionally visit.
"The news about Baitullah Mehsud's death is correct, according to my intelligence sources," Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters in Islamabad today. "We are verifying this news and waiting for results of a ground verification to confirm 100 percent. However, according to my sources, this news is correct and he has been taken out."
The report was later confirmed by a Taliban commander and aide to Mehsud, Kafayat Ullah. "I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan," Ullah told The Associated Press by telephone.
Analysts and officials in Pakistan and the United States believe his death could help destabilize the Taliban al Qaeda nexus, delivering a strong blow to the Taliban in Pakistan and separating the once feuding groups that he helped bring together. And, analysts said, it would give confidence to a Pakistani public that has only recently turned against the Taliban en masse.
"If Baitullah Mehsud is dead, this is the time to strike," said Farahnaz Ispahani, spokeswoman for Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari. "Because while the Taliban is in flux looking for new leadership, we need to get in there in whatever way necessary and deal with the situation."
Mehsud was also largely responsible in recent years for the Taliban's ties with al Qaeda, and his death could lead to some local villagers trying to take away the safe havens they've enjoyed since 9/11 along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
"It will likely be difficult for al Qaeda to stay in that area," said Amir Rana, a defense analyst and the director of the Pakistani Institute of Peace Studies.
But Taliban commanders have been killed in the past, and Mehsud's replacement will try to keep the same relationships that Mehsud cultivated during his active leadership of the Taliban in Pakistan Movement, which he founded in late 2007.
The most likely candidate is Hakimullah Mehsud, one of Mehsud's deputies and the head of the Taliban in Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai agencies. But he is young and believed to be rash, analysts said, and he may not be accepted by other Taliban commanders who operate separately from Mehsud.