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Fate Of Pakistani Taliban Chief Still Unclear

Pakistan Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud in 2008
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- A new frenzy of rumors spread about the fate of Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud today, but a U.S. counterterrorism official said he could not definitively confirm the death of the militant.

Hakimullah was wounded in a U.S. drone aircraft attack in January. The strikes have escalated since Hakimullah appeared in a farewell video with the double agent suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in December in Afghanistan.

The CIA is likely to step up efforts to hunt him -- if he is alive -- after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed three U.S. special forces in Pakistan this month.

The latest rumors started with a Taliban official who requested anonymity, telling journalists Hakimullah died of his wounds while being transported to the city of Karachi, a highly unlikely scenario because he would be more vulnerable to capture or killing outside his stronghold in tribal areas on the Afghan border.

A Pakistani government intelligence official gave the same account.

Then the army spokesman and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who has made incorrect predictions in the past over the deaths of Taliban leaders, said they had no credible information.

"People coming from tribal areas are saying he is dead and has already been buried. However, I don't have any confirmation. I am unable to confirm it," said Malik.

The official Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, denied reports that Hakimullah had died. "He is fine," a Pakistani television station quoted him as saying.

U.S. Not Sure Either

In Washington, a U.S. counterterrorism official said 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.

"His death isn't definitively confirmed," added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The confusion must be frustrating for the United States, which watched Hakimullah on the video with the double agent bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan on December 30, raising the Pakistani Taliban's profile.

The drone strikes have killed some senior Taliban and Al-Qaeda figures but they have not eased suicide bombings which have killed hundreds of people despite a government offensive launched in October.

Last year, the interior minister said Hakimullah was killed in a Taliban power struggle after the death of its leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike.

Rumors surfaced once again recently. Taliban militants issued an audio tape on January 16 purportedly from Hakimullah, denying he was killed in a U.S. missile strike two days earlier.

"I am neither wounded nor dead; I am fine," said a man on the tape which a Taliban spokesman played over the telephone to a Reuters reporter.