ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 7, 2009 — -- 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.
New Taliban Leader After Mehsud
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.
Because of that, another possible successor is Wali ur-Rehman, who has helped control access to Mehsud and acted as a messenger between the Taliban chief and his deputy commanders along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"This could lead to a crisis in the Taliban because there's no obvious successor," Rahimullah Yusufzai, an ABC News consultant and the Peshawar editor of the English daily newspaper The News.
U.S. and Pakistani officials blame Mehsud for some of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Decrmbrt 2007.
In the last few months the United States has singled out Mehsud in its campaign, led by the CIA, to target senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders using unmanned aerial drones. Initially, the drones generally targeted only al Qaeda commanders and some Taliban leaders who were more responsible for attacking U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan than was Mehsud.
But the United States put a $5 million bounty on his head. And of the last 10 drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, nine targeted Mehsud or his network in the South Waziristan tribal agency. Wednesday's attack was at least the 29th this year, according to an ABC News tally.
His death is one of the most significant terrorists to be killed by the United States in years. Obama's head of counterterrorism, John Brennan, said the President has made the pursuit of terrorists a priority.
"Over the past six months, we have presented President Obama with a number of actions and initiatives against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups," Brennan told the CSIS yesterday. "Not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists before they can kill more innocent men, women and children."
Last month, a CIA drone strike nearly killed Mehsud when it hit a funeral he was attending. Instead, it killed 65 other people.
The Pakistani government has publicly criticized the U.S. attacks, but privately officials acknowledge that if the attacks do not kill civilians, they are helpful in defeating an insurgency embedded in some of the world's least hospitable terrain.
"I don't think it makes any difference who killed Baitullah Mehsud if he is indeed dead," Ispahani said. "It is a good day for Pakistan if he is dead because he was a murderer and he was a man who incited others to murder, and he did not care whether they were innocent civilians, or government servants, of people from military."
"If he is dead, though, it's unfortunate if it happened because of a drone attack, but as I said, with this particular case, at the end of the day, the end justifies the means," Ispahani said.
Pakistan has increased its attacks by fighter jets in the region but has steered clear of sending ground troops.
In an interview with al Jazeera in January 2008, Mehsud said he was fighting a "defensive" jihad against the West.
"Our main aim is to finish Britain, the United States and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims," he told al Jazeera at the time. "We pray to God to give us the ability to destroy the White House, New York and London. And we have trust in God. Very soon, we will be witnessing jihad's miracles." ABC's Huma Khan and Ammu Kannampilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.