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Pakistani Taliban deputy chief says takes command
Thu Aug 20, 2009 8:27am EDT
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By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The deputy head of the Pakistani Taliban said he has temporarily taken over command in a move likely to fuel rifts among militant factions after the reported killing of leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Pakistani and U.S. officials are almost certain Mehsud was killed along with his wife and some guards in a strike by a CIA-operated drone aircraft on August 5 in his South Waziristan stronghold on the Afghan border.
But his aides have been insisting he is still alive.
Faqir Mohammad, deputy head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, also denied Mehsud was killed and, like other Taliban commanders, said he was sick and laying low.
"Because of the illness of the emir (leader), I am acting emir," the BBC's Urdu-language service quoted Mohammad as saying.
Pakistan and U.S. officials have said the Pakistani Taliban appeared to be in disarray after Mehsud's death with reports of infighting between factions vying to take command.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik played down the importance of Mohammad's move to take over the reins of the TTP.
"Faqir's self-creation to be the head of the TTP shows that there is no Taliban leadership," Malik told reporters, adding that government forces would capture all militant leaders.
Analysts say the Taliban's reluctance to admit Mehsud's death could be a tactic aimed at averting discord before the leadership question is settled. But Mohammad's announcement demonstrated division in the ranks was deepening.
"The rift is now more visible," said Rahimullah Yousufzai, a veteran journalist and expert on Afghan border affairs. "It shows that in the absence of a strong man like Baitullah, it will be very difficult for the commanders to keep the TTP intact."
The TTP is a loose alliance of 13 groups in which Mehsud alone was estimated to be commanding from 10,000 to more than 20,000 fighters. Divisions in TTP could see the militants loyal to Mehsud subsumed by various rival commanders.
MORE FOCUS ON AFGHANISTAN?
Mehsud had long focused his attacks on the Pakistani security forces, unlike Afghan Taliban factions also based in the northwest which have concentrated on launching cross-border raids into Afghanistan.
Mehsud has been accused of a series of bomb attacks in Pakistani cities over the past couple of years, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
A splintering of the Pakistani Taliban would be a major coup for the government and would hamper the militants' ability to mount coordinated action. Continued...
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