Reports from Islamabad say Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud has died.
Baitullah Mehsud is the insurgent commander in Pakistan that authorities blame for a wave of suicide attacks across the country -- including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December.
Rumors are rife in Islamabad about Mehsud's fate, with the state-controlled Geo TV reporting that the Pakistani Taliban leader has died of an illness.
Taliban spokesmen are dismissing the report as government propaganda. Militant spokesman Muslim Khan, who is based in northwest Pakistan's Swat Valley, says he has spoken to a close aide of Mehsud and that the aide did not mention Mehsud dying, nor even that he was ill.
Selab Mahsoud, an independent Pakistani journalist working in the tribal regions, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that all Taliban commanders in the area have denied the report of Mehsud's death.
"I have contacted very close commanders of Baitullah Mehsud," Mahsoud says. "All of them deny the reports about his death. Among them is Dr. Isa Khan -- a close aide and Taliban leader in the town of Bannu. He said in a telephone interview that the reports of Mehsud's death are false. He says he spoke by telephone with Mehsud at 9 o'clock this morning and that they had greeted each other for the [Islamic holiday] Eid al-Fitr."
'He Died Yesterday'
U.S. military officials at the Pentagon have said they could not confirm the reports of Mehsud's death.
But analyst Ahmad Sayedi -- a former Afghan diplomat based in Islamabad -- tells RFE/RL that his sources have confirmed Mehsud is dead.
"Mr. Mehsud had suffered for a long time from a kidney illness and also from diabetes. He died yesterday and was buried in Waziristan," Sayedi says. "It is expected that his successor will be appointed today or tomorrow. His successor, as we hear, could be one of two men -- either Mawlavi Nazir or Mawlavi Faqir. If these two do not agree -- because Mawlavi Nazir looks to be opposed to Uzbek, Turkmen, and Chechen [militants living in Pakistan] -- then there is a possibility that they would name [a close aide of Baitullah Mehsud, who uses the name] Mawlavi Omar."
Sayedi notes that Mehsud's aide, Mawlavi Omar, despite the similar name, is not Mullah Omar, the fugitive leader of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
Meanwhile, amid the reports of Mehsud's death, Pakistani security forces have been continuing an offensive they launched in August within the strategically important tribal region of Bajaur, one of the main sanctuaries for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Pakistan's Army claims it has killed as many as 1,000 militants during the past month in that offensive.
In some places, ethnic Pashtun tribesmen who blame militants for bringing violence to their region have banded together with encouragement from the authorities to oppose Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
That was the case overnight in the village of Mulla Saib Dar, about 20 kilometers east of Bajaur's main town of Khar. Tribesmen there have been battling Islamist militants with support from Pakistani army helicopter gunships.
Obey Tribal Rules
Tribal elder Malik Younus says a militia force of about 6,000 ethnic Pashtun tribesmen have been battling Islamist militants at Mulla Saib Dar, setting ablaze the houses and hideouts being used by militants.
Vowing to battle the militants until they are cleared from the region, Younus said his tribesmen can no longer tolerate lawlessness in their land. He said everyone must obey their tribal rules and that extremists cannot transform Bajaur into a hub of terrorism.
In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeated his call for Afghan Taliban fighters -- including Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar -- to lay down their weapons and join with the government to help rebuild Afghanistan.
Karzai made the call for peace on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday that comes at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan.
"Actually, we are seeking everyday those Afghan Taliban who had to flee their country because of fear or other reasons and take up arms against the Afghan people and their country," Karzai said. "We hope they will return to their country along with their leaders. A few days ago, I called upon Mullah Omar to return and work for the prosperity and security of the Afghan people -- to stop causing the displacement, suffering, and killing of Afghan people."
Karzai often has insisted in the past that any negotiations with Taliban fighters would not include Mullah Omar. But Karzai now says the fugitive leader should not be afraid of the 70,000 international forces in Afghanistan.
Karzai also confirmed that he has asked officials from Saudi Arabia to serve as mediators in talks with the Taliban. But he dismissed reports that Saudi officials already were mediating peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
"The truth is that for the last two years, we have sent messages to Saudi leaders asking them, as leaders in the Islamic world, to help [mediate] for peace, stability, security, and reconciliation -- and for better relations in the region," Karzai said. "There has been no negotiation and no action. If there were negotiations or any other contacts, it would have taken place on Afghan soil. If there would have been any kind of negotiations with mediation by the Saudi king, we would have told the Afghan people."
The Taliban did not comment on Karzai's offer for negotiations. But similar offers by Afghan officials have been rejected repeatedly in the past by Taliban fighters.
Mullah Omar issued a written statement on October 1 calling on NATO and U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan or "face defeat in all corners of the world."
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Javed Naimi and Ahmad Takal contributed to this report.