Pakistani Taliban leader reportedly killed in U.S. drone strike

The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who had a $5 million US bounty on his head, has reportedly been killed in a U.S. drone strike, raising fears that his death will inflame tensions in the already highly volatile region of North Waziristan.

Hakimullah Mehsud was one of Pakistan's most wanted men, with $5M US bounty on his head

Intelligence, army and Taliban sources say the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, was one of four people killed in a U.S. drone strike on Friday in the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan. (Ishtiaq Mehsud/Associated Press)

The chief of the Pakistani Taliban was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday, security sources and a senior Taliban commander said, in a major blow to the country's most feared militant group.

Hakimullah Mehsud was one of Pakistan's most wanted men, with a $5 million US bounty on his head issued by the United States. He led an increasingly violent insurgency from a secret hideout in North Waziristan, the Taliban's mountainous stronghold on the Afghan border.

"We confirm with great sorrow that our esteemed leader was martyred in a drone attack," a senior Taliban commander said.

Mehsud's funeral will be held on Saturday in Miranshah, the Taliban commander said — a high-profile event likely to stir tensions further in the already highly volatile region.

2nd-in-command killed in May

The death of a man whose name became synonymous with the escalating insurgency in the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Pakistani Taliban.

In May, a drone strike killed Mehsud's second-in-command, and one of his most trusted lieutenants was captured in Afghanistan last month.

The death also follows months of debate over potential peace talks between the Taliban and the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who won a landslide election victory in May, promising to quash the insurgency.

On Friday, several intelligence, army and Taliban sources across Pakistan confirmed Mehsud, believed to be in his mid-30s, had been killed in the drone strike in North Waziristan.

Mehsud took over the Pakistani Taliban in August 2009 after a drone strike killed the previous leader, his mentor. His Pakistani Taliban acts as an umbrella for various jihadist groups who are separate from but allied with the Afghan Taliban.

Four security officials confirmed his death to Reuters. His bodyguard and driver were also killed, they said.

"Among the dead, who are in large numbers, are Hakimullah's personal bodyguard Tariq Mehsud and his driver Abdullah Mehsud, two of his closest people," said one intelligence source.

The government issued its usual statement denouncing the drone strike but did not comment on reports of Mehsud's death.

4 missiles fired at compound

Drones fired four missiles at a compound in Danda Darpa Khel, a village about five kilometres from the regional capital of Miranshah, killing at least four people, sources said.

Mehsud was killed after attending a gathering of 25 Taliban leaders meeting to discuss the government's offer of talks, they said.

The information could not be independently verified because journalists have no access to the affected areas.

Death might speed-up negotiations

The U.S. had offered $5 million for Mehsud's capture after he appeared in a farewell video with the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees at a base in Afghanistan in 2009.

U.S. prosecutors have charged him with involvement in the attack.

Although Mehsud's death will spark calls for revenge, it may make negotiations with the militants easier in the long-run, said Saifullah Mahsud, director of the Pakistani think-tank FATA Research Center.

"Hakimullah Mehsud was a very controversial figure, and he had very tough demands," he said. But the strike did not signal the end of the Pakistani Taliban, he said.

"It's a very decentralised organisation. They've lost leaders to drone strikes before."

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