Taliban in turmoil as rivals draw guns at each other in fight for leadership

Baitullah Mehsud
Baitullah Mehsud: the battle to replace him as leader of the Pakistani Taleban has reportedly become bloody

The Pakistani Taleban appeared to be in turmoil last night after reports of a fatal gun battle between rivals to replace its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by a CIA missile strike on Wednesday.
Government and intelligence sources said that Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur Rehman became increasingly angry with each other at a shura, or tribal council, called to choose a new head of Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (Taleban Movement of Pakistan).

Guns were reportedly drawn and sources suggested that Hakimullah Mehsud was killed and Wali-ur Rehman was seriously injured.

However, Taleban commanders denied any infighting and tried to present a united front, while Pakistani officials struggled to confirm local intelligence reports.
One local cleric told The Times that Mr Hakimullah grew angry at the shura when the majority of those there declared their support for Mr Rehman.

Mr Rehman, who is in his early thirties, is a former spokesman for Mehsud and was one of his closest confidants, but he has a reputation for being intelligent and far-sighted rather than aggressive. He also has the advantage of being highly qualified in Islamic teaching.

Intelligence officials said that Afghan Taleban and al-Qaeda figures had been trying to mediate between the two camps at a series of shuras in South Waziristan — apparently to no avail.

A spokesman for a Taleban group opposed to Mehsud also reported that supporters of the former Pakistani Taleban leader were turning on each other.

“Differences have arisen between the followers of Mr Mehsud: that is why they are claiming that he is not dead,” the spokesman, Maulvi Saifullah Mehsud, said.

“They were at loggerheads with one another. This is going to grow in the coming days. God willing, the infighting will get worse.”

However, Mr Rehman telephoned several reporters yesterday to deny personally that the shura, or the shooting, had taken place.

He added that Mr Hakimullah was alive and would soon speak to them.

Mr Hakimullah has not done that, even though he contributed to the confusion on Saturday by telephoning a reporter to deny that Mehsud was dead.

Qari Hussain, another of Mehsud’s key lieutenants, has also denied the militant leader’s death.

Taleban commanders now say that the Government is fabricating reports of dissent within its ranks to try to undermine the movement.

The Government, meanwhile, accuses the Taleban of deliberately sowing confusion and has challenged the commanders to provide evidence supporting their claims.
It is impossible to verify either the Taleban’s or the Government’s version of events as most of the tribal regions are off-limits to journalists and government officials.

“We need to see the dead bodies, we need to do some DNA, and we need to have something solid,” Rehman Malik, the Pakistani Interior Minister, told local television over the weekend.

Nonetheless, the United States is giving greater credence to the reports both of Mehsud’s death and the subsequent Taleban infighting.

Jim Jones, President Obama’s National Security Adviser, told a television news programme yesterday that the White House believed that Mehsud had been killed.

“We think so,” Mr Jones told Fox News Sunday. “The Pakistani Government believes he is, and all the evidence we have suggests that.”

However, Mr Jones said that he could not confirm that there had been a gunfight between Mehsud’s potential successors. “We’ve heard stories about that. I can’t confirm it,” he said. “It certainly appears there is dissension in the ranks. That’s not a bad thing for us.”

Many analysts also say that the Taleban’s denials are probably part of a strategy to maintain unity. In the past, the Taleban has denied the killing of other leaders.

“There is, I think, a struggle going on for the leadership, and Hakimullah Mehsud is one of the contenders,” said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions.

Mr Hakimullah, also a former spokesman for Mehsud, was put in charge of fighters in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal regions despite being only in his twenties.

The leader of a faction called Fidayeenal Islam, he burnished his reputation as a ruthless fighter by leading a series of attacks last year on convoys carrying supplies to American and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

He is a cousin of Qari Hussain, who is in charge of training Mehsud’s suicide bombers.

Mr Hakimullah acknowledged on Wednesday that Mehsud, who had been ill with diabetes, had not been in hands-on control of the movement’s affairs for the past three months.
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