Pakistan Taliban Leader Baitullah Mehsud Is Dead, Aide Says

Pakistani intelligence officials tell ABC News he was killed in a CIA strike.

ByABC News
August 7, 2009, 3:51 AM

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.

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.