US drone strike kills Pakistani Taliban leader, officials say

Counterterrorism authorities say Hakimullah Mehsud was killed during a drone strike in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on Friday.

Ishtiaq Mehsud/AP/File
In this 2009 file photo, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, left, is seen with his comrade Waliur Rehman during his meeting with media in Sararogha, a Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border.

A US drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban Friday, US and Pakistani officials said, in a report that if confirmed would be a major blow to the group that comes just a day after the government said it started peace talks with the militants.

Hakimullah Mehsud, who is also believed to be behind a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010 as well as brazen attacks inside Pakistan, was widely reported to have been killed in 2010, but later resurfaced. The tribal areas where the drone attacks occur are dangerous, making it difficult for journalists to independently confirm information.

The strike also killed four other suspected militants, according to two Pakistani intelligence officials.

A senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The CIA and the White House declined to comment on the reported death.

The US National Counterterrorism Center describes Mehsud as "the self-proclaimed emir of the Pakistani Taliban." Mehsud is on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list, with a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture, and has been near the top of the CIA Counterterrorism Center's most wanted list for his role in the December 2009 suicide bombing that killed seven Americans — CIA officers and their security detail — at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. The suicide bomber, a Jordanian double agent, was ushered into the military base to brief CIA officers on Al Qaeda, and detonated his explosive vest once he'd reached the inside of the base.

Mehsud was indicted on charges of "conspiracy to murder US citizens abroad and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives) against US citizens abroad," the NCTC site says.

Friday's strike in the North Waziristan tribal area comes at such a sensitive time. The government has been trying to cut a peace deal with the militants to end years of fighting that has killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and security forces.

Two senior intelligence officials in North Waziristan said agents sent to the site of the attack in a village outside of the main city of the province confirmed his identity.

Two senior Taliban commanders said they had gone to the area and had seen the remains of the militant commander's body.

All the officials and the militant commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The Taliban commanders said at least four missiles struck just after a vehicle in which Mehsud was driving entered the compound.

The drone strikes are extremely controversial in Pakistan where many people view them as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty and say innocent civilians are killed in the process.

The newly elected government of Nawaz Sharif was elected in May in part on promises to end the years of fighting in the country's northwest through negotiations instead of continued military operations.

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