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Pakistan Taliban's new leader shows he's in charge

In a brash response to the government's claim he was dead, Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in a video broadcast Monday.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 2009

In this photo from Sunday, Pakistan's new Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud (c.) stands with deputy Waliur Rehman (l.) and spokesman Azam Tariq in Sararogha, South Waziristan, along the Afghan border.

Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP


Lahore, Pakistan

The reemergence of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud after weeks of speculation that he might be dead was nothing if not emphatic. At a press conference in his South Waziristan base Sunday, the heir of Baitullah Mehsud appeared alongside four top Taliban commanders, including the rival whom the Pakistani government said had killed him.

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At the press conference, which was broadcast on Pakistani television Monday, Hakimullah boasted that the Taliban is stronger than ever, vowed to defeat America and the Pakistani army, and denounced President Barack Obama and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari as "enemies of humanity."

Its airing coincided with a suicide bomb attack on the United Nations World Food Program offices in Islamabad that left five personnel dead and more than eight injured. On Tuesday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack through spokesman Azam Tariq.

"This sends out the clear message that he's in charge, the infighting is over, and they would like to portray that they are as potent as ever," says Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general and security analyst based in Islamabad.

Posing for the cameras

With his reputation as bold and brash, Hakimullah Mehsud shows none of the signs of camera-shyness that marked his predecessor, Baitullah. In Monday's video he posed for the cameras, smiling, surrounded by heavily armed deputies. He looked noticeably chubbier than in older photographs.

Also noteworthy is the young leader's sense of showmanship and timing, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief of The News, an English daily. "Instead of responding immediately to [Interior Minister] Rehman Malik's taunts to show himself if he was alive, he bided his time and made his appearance on his own terms," he says.

Beyond the timing, the press conference also showcased a Who's Who of top militant figures. Standing beside Hakimullah were erstwhile rival Waliur Rehman, and Qari Hussain, a cousin, referred to as "teacher of suicide bombers."