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Signs Of Taliban Rift Hearten Pakistan And U.S. Officials


U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke

U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- U.S. and Pakistani officials say they were heartened by signs of a rift between Pakistani Taliban factions after the apparent death of militant leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Mehsud was the overall head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a loose confederation of 13 factions. He is believed to have been killed in a U.S. missile strike on August 5.

"I can say that since Baitullah Mehsud, there's confusion, there's disarray and there's a lot of reports of infighting within the TTP," Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told a joint news conference on August 16 with Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Before arriving in Islamabad late on Saturday, Holbrooke told reporters travelling with him; "Baitullah Mehsud is gone and it looks like there is a struggle for succession among his commanders."

On the night of August 15, fighters from a rival, less anti-government faction, led by Maulvi Nazir Wazir, were ambushed and 17 were killed.

An intelligence official and a spokesman for Maulvi Nazir's group blamed the Mehsud group.

"They were hiding behind the rocks and as soon as our people reached there, they opened fire. It was so sudden and quick that none of our men fired back," Shaheen Wazir, Nazir's spokesman, told Reuters by telephone.

A spokesman for the Mehsud group denied responsibility.

Taliban officials have also denied Mehsud is dead, without offering proof that he is alive.

Earlier in the day, a Pakistani air strike killed 16 Mehsud fighters and wounded 32, according to intelligence officials in the area. A spokesman for Mehsud's group, Azam Tariq, said only civilians were killed in the air strike.

"The Pakistani government is following U.S. policies and killing our people but we won't spare them. We'll take revenge," Tariq told Reuters.

Demoralize And Divide

Analysts say the government will be maximizing any opportunity to demoralize the Taliban and to create splits in their ranks.

It is difficult to judge the validity of claims and counter claims by the government or militants as the Waziristan region is closed off to outsiders.

Inter-tribal rivalry, and the Pakistani security agency's tactics of playing off one group against another, has created a fluid situation, where alliances can shift quickly.

While Mehsud's main focus was on fighting the Pakistani government and security forces, Maulvi Nazir's group has been heavily involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Western governments with troops fighting in Afghanistan hope Pakistan will clear out Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in the tribal lands.

For the past two months, Pakistani forces have bottled up Mehsud fighters in their tribal lands in South Waziristan, a rugged region on the border with Afghanistan.

While an assault on the militants' mountainous redoubt hasn't happened yet, Pakistani warplanes have attacked Taliban positions and U.S. drone aircraft have launched several missile strikes like the one that killed Mehsud.

Some U.S. officials are concerned that Pakistan could lose momentum if it waits too long to act in Waziristan, though Holbrooke didn't express any of those worries.

"We're very impressed with their success so far and we're glad to see progress that has been made but we're not going to come here and give tactical advice to the Pakistan army," Holbrooke told the news conference.

The Pakistan military is wary of becoming over-stretched, with forces still mopping up in Swat, having retaken the valley, just 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Islamabad, from the Taliban in a campaign that began more than 3 months ago.
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