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Qari Zainuddin, shown second from right in this June file photo, was shot dead on Tuesday, reportedly by one of his own guards. ((Ishtiaq Mahsud/Associated Press) )

A rival to the Taliban chief in Pakistan was shot to death Tuesday in a northwestern town.

The attack on Qari Zainuddin appeared to be a sign that divisions within the Taliban have broken into the open as the group comes under military assault.

Zainuddin was tribal leader and vocal critic of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, and had emerged as one of his main rivals.

He was killed in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, said the town’s district police chief, Iqbal Khan.

Baz Mohammad, an aide to the killed leader, said a guard ran into a room at Zainuddin's compound after morning prayers and opened fire. The guard fled in a waiting car after the shooting.

He accused Mehsud's followers of being behind the attack and filed a criminal complaint with the police.

"It was definitely Baitullah's man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job," Mohammad said, vowing to avenge the death.

The guard accused of the shooting had gotten closer to Zainuddin over the last four months, aides said.

A spokesman for Mehsud could not immediately be reached to respond to the accusation.

'Islam stands for peace'

Zainuddin was estimated to have about 3,000 armed followers in Dera Ismail Khan and nearby Tank.

Zainuddin was particularly outspoken in his criticism of suicide attacks planned and carried out by Mehsud's followers. He has decried the killing of civilians in the name of Islam.

"Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism," Zainuddin told the Associated Press in an earlier interview.

"Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism," he had said.  

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Anti-Taliban protesters burn an effigy of Baitullah Mehsud on Monday, June 15, in Karachi, Pakistan. ((Shakil Adil/Associated Press))

Zainuddin's motive for criticizing Mehsud was not clear, but there was speculation that he was trying to portray himself as a more moderate alternative to the Taliban leader, although there appeared to be little or no differences between the two over fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Powerful leader

The Pakistani government has relied on rivals to Mehsud to weaken or eliminate him, said Mahmood Shah, a former top security official. The government has also encouraged citizens to set up militias to oust Taliban fighters, especially in the regions that border Afghanistan where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have hideouts.

Tuesday's killing indicates this may not be the right approach, Shah said, and suggested that the government instead needs to implement a comprehensive, centralized approach to taking on Mehsud.

"Baitullah Mehsud has overcome all tribal dynamics. He has resources, funding and a fighting force to strike anywhere in Pakistan," Shah said, calling him a front man for al-Qaeda.

"You simply can't eliminate him through local efforts; instead, you need a major force."

Pakistan has begun a major offensive into the restive northwest in an effort to weed out Taliban militants who have taken control of increasingly large swaths of territory in recent months. It has, in recent weeks, also spoken of sending military forces into South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold where Mehsud is believed to be headquartered.

The Pakistani offensive has won praise from the United States, which has said calming instability in the country is a top foreign policy priority.

But despite the military's efforts, the U.S. has continued to conduct unmanned missile strikes in Pakistan, drawing criticism from civilians and the government in Islamabad.

Missile strikes

Earlier Tuesday, three suspected U.S. missiles hit a Taliban training centre at a town in South Waziristan, killing at least seven people, according to intelligence officials who requested anonymity.

Later in the day, U.S. missiles hit a funeral procession held for some of those killed in the strike, according to witnesses and officials.

Three unmanned drones fired missiles at the funeral, said Sohail Mehsud from the town of Makeen in the South Waziristan tribal region.

"The missiles did not hit the procession precisely. Had it been the case, it would have a big loss," he said.

Two people were killed and three wounded, the Associated Press reported, without specifying its source.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media, confirmed the strike.

Dozens of such strikes have been carried out in the tribal regions over the last year. The United States has confirmed unmanned drones have targeted suspected militant leaders in Pakistan. But U.S. officials, as a rule, do not comment on individual strikes.

With files from The Associated Press