Missile death toll at 55 in Pakistan
Intelligence officials denied reports Wednesday that the head of Pakistan's Taliban narrowly escaped death in a suspected US missile strike that killed about 55 people, saying he was elsewhere at the time.
Baitullah Mehsud, accused of plotting suicide bombings and the assassination Tuesday of his chief rival, is the target of a looming offensive by Pakistan's military in the South Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
Clashes continued Wednesday in the volatile northwest, with a rocket attack at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar killing three officers, local police chief Yasin Khan said. Three rockets were fired at a military base in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, triggering a shootout but no known casualties.
But the focus is on Mehsud, who reportedly has up to 12,000 men under his control, entrenched in the lawless tribal areas. Suspected missile strikes killed several people at a purported Taliban training centre early Tuesday, then another barrage rained down on a funeral procession for some of those killed in the first attack.
Intelligence officials had said Tuesday night that Mesud was at the funeral and that militants lost contact with him for a while. Media reports suggested he had a very close call.
However, two intelligence officials said Wednesday that although Mehsud had visited the village where the funeral took place, he left before the drone-fired missiles killed 55 people – reportedly including several senior Taliban leaders – and wounded dozens more. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Dozens of airstrikes have been carried out in the tribal regions over the last year, drawing criticism from Pakistan's leaders that they jeopardize the military operation by firing up an already raging anti-Americanism.
Qari Hussain, a close associate of Mehsud, also denied reports that Mehsud had a close call.
"Baitullah Mehsud was at a secret place at the time of the American missile attack, and the attack killed only five of our colleagues, and the remaining 45 slain men were villagers," he told The Associated Press.
Hussain, who is known for training suicide bombers, refused to comment on the assassination the day before of Mehsud rival Qari Zainuddin, who was shot dead in his office by one of his own guards. Zainuddin, who broke with Mehsud in 2007, was estimated to have about 3,000 armed followers. He recently criticised Mehsud for using suicide bombings to target civilians.
The slaying – blamed on Mehsud by Zainuddin aides – underscores a rift in the Taliban's ranks as it braces for the impending army assault that has been preceded by aerial and artillery bombardment. It also sets back government hopes of exploiting these internal divisions.
But while there may be internal divisions, the renegade Taliban agree on the need to fight US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Mehsud has humbled the Pakistani army in past battles and has been closing ranks this year by forging fresh alliances with other powerful Taliban leaders and killing off opponents. Although Zainuddin was never seen as a serious challenger to Mehsud, the government had clearly hoped his outspoken criticism of the Taliban leader would foster others to defect and help the army with tips on where to find him.
The Obama administration supports anti-militant operations, seeing them as a measure of Pakistan's resolve in combating a growing insurgency. The battle could also help the war in Afghanistan because militants have launched cross-border attacks on coalition troops there.