Pakistani militant leader dead: Taliban

Pakistani government authorities headed Friday to the site of a U.S. air strike to search for the remains of notorious militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who Taliban officials claim died in the attack.

Officials search for verification near missile strike site

Pakistan's top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, left with cap, talks to the media in Kotkai, a village in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan, in this May 2008 file photo. ((Associated Press))

Pakistani government authorities headed Friday to the site of a U.S. air strike to search for the remains of notorious militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who Taliban officials claim died in the attack.

Kafayat Ullah, an aide to Mehsud, told The Associated Press that Mehsud and one of his wives were killed by a U.S. attack Wednesday but declined to provide further details.

"I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan," Ullah said.

Three Pakistani intelligence officials have also said Mehsud is believed to have died in an air strike at the home of his father-in-law in Nardusai in South Waziristan. A U.S. intelligence official also said there were strong indications that Mehsud had died, including communications interceptions.

Pakistani intelligence officials reported Friday there are indications that Taliban factions may also be holding a council meeting to choose a new leader to replace Mehsud.

Need ground verification

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said although there is intelligence information indicating the death, authorities are heading into the lawless tribal region along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan where Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.

"To be 100 per cent sure, we are going for ground verification," Qureshi said.

An American counterterrorism official said the U.S. government was also looking into the reports. The official indicated the United States also does not yet have physical evidence to prove who died.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration could not confirm the death, but "there seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers that he is indeed dead."

Gibbs described Mehsud as a murderous thug, adding that if he is dead, "without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result."

Mehsud's body is believed to be buried near the strike site but no official has yet seen the body because the area remains under Taliban control, officials said.

Several unnamed Taliban sources have said Mehsud was wounded in the attack, which intelligence officials have said was conducted by the CIA, but did not die. Others have said the leader was not in the house at the time.

Mehsud, the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban militant group, has been blamed for staging suicide attacks in Pakistan and planning assassinations against the Pakistani government, including the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. He has denied being responsible.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has confirmed that one of Mehsud's two wives died in Wednesday's attack.

Conflicting reports

"Yes, a lot of information is pouring in from that area that he's dead, but I'm unable to confirm unless I have solid evidence," Malik told reporters Friday.

A local tribesman, who also spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law's house being treated for kidney pain and had been put on a drip by a doctor, when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief's funeral.

If Mehsud's death is confirmed, it would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In March, the U.S. State Department authorized a reward of up to $5 million US for the militant chief and an increasing number of U.S. air strikes have targeted Mehsud-related sites.

The U.S. sees him as a danger to the war effort in Afghanistan, largely because of the threat he is believed to pose to nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The U.S. and Pakistan will conduct DNA testing on the body believed to be Mehsud's, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing an unnamed U.S. defence official.

The tests will use DNA samples taken from Mehsud's family members, and results could take anywhere from days to weeks, the newspaper reported.

With files from The Associated Press