By Rasool Dawar
and Kimberly Dozier
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN: A U.S. drone strike Friday killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in a major blow to the group that came after the government said it had started peace talks with the insurgents, according to intelligence officials and militant commanders.
Mehsud, who was on U.S. most-wanted terrorist lists with a $5 million bounty, is believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan, a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square and other assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
The ruthless, 34-year-old commander who was closely allied with al-Qaida was widely reported to have been killed in 2010 — only to resurface later.
But a senior U.S. intelligence official said Friday the United States received positive confirmation that Mehsud had been killed. Two Pakistani intelligence officials also confirmed his death, as did two Taliban commanders who saw his mangled body after the strike. A third commander said the Taliban would likely choose Mehsud’s successor today.
“If true, the death of Hakimullah Mehsud will be a significant blow to the Pakistani Taliban, an organization that poses a serious threat to the Pakistani people and to Americans in Pakistan,” said Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and Cuyahoga Falls native who retired in August and has championed the drone program.
There is increased tension between Islamabad and Washington over the drone attacks, and Pakistan is also trying to strike a peace deal with the Taliban.
The group’s deputy leader was killed in a drone strike in May, and one of Mehsud’s top deputies was arrested in Afghanistan last month.
The intelligence officials and militant commanders said Friday’s drone attack that killed Mehsud hit a compound in the village of Dande Derpa Khel in the North Waziristan tribal area.
Four other suspected militants were killed, they said, including Mehsud’s cousin, uncle and one of his guards. They did not have the identity of the fourth victim.
At least four missiles struck just after a vehicle in which Mehsud was riding had entered the compound, the Taliban commanders said, adding that a senior group of militants was discussing the peace talks at a nearby mosque shortly before the attack.
All the officials and the militant commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The CIA and the White House declined to comment.
Pakistan’s tribal region is dangerous to visit, making it difficult for journalists to independently confirm information on drone attacks there.
It’s a particularly sensitive time for the Pakistani government, which has been trying to cut a peace deal with the militants to end years of fighting in northwestern Pakistan. The government was swift to condemn the drone strike, although that comment came before news of Mehsud’s death was reported.
“These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a news release.