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Pakistan Says It Has 'Credible Information' Mehsud Dead

Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a screen grab from October 2009

Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a screen grab from October 2009

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan said today it had information suggesting that Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud had died of wounds inflicted in a U.S. drone aircraft attack in January.

"I have credible information that he's dead, but I don't have any confirmation," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters, as speculation swirled over the Taliban leader's fate.

Two Taliban officials, including a senior commander, called Reuters earlier in the day to deny that Hakimullah had died.

The rumors about his fate began on February 9 after another Taliban official, requesting anonymity, told journalists that he had died of his wounds.

The death of Mehsud, notorious for his ferocity, if confirmed, could temporarily disrupt the Taliban campaign of bomb attacks and cities across Pakistan. But the network, which has a presence in most parts of the country, is likely to stay intact.

The drone strike came after a video emerged showing Mehsud with a Jordanian double agent bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan on December 30, raising the Pakistani Taliban's profile.

In Washington, a U.S. counterterrorism official said on February 9 he could not confirm Hakimullah's death and that it was up to the Taliban to prove he was alive.

"At this point, the onus is on the Pakistani Taliban to produce this guy -- especially as time wears on. Hakimullah certainly hasn't shied away from the terrorist limelight before, so if he's alive, why is he doing so now when there's so much speculation about his demise? Here's to hoping the speculation is correct," the official said.

Two Taliban officials, including Maulvi Noor Jamal, alias Maulvi Toofan, a little-known commander who Pakistani newspapers said could succeed Mehsud, denied that Mehsud was dead.

"Hakimullah was neither killed nor I have been appointed acting amir of the Taliban," he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Wali-ur-Rehman, a senior Taliban commander who is in charge of the militants in their South Waziristan bastion, is also considered as a possible successor to Mehsud.