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Pakistan Taliban Commander Denies Shootout, Says Alive

Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- A Pakistani Taliban commander who the government said was involved in a deadly shootout with a rival commander has denied that there had been any fighting and said both he and the rival were alive.

The comments by Wali-ur-Rehman add to a volley of unverifiable claims and counterclaims by the government and the Taliban that have surrounded the reported death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. missile attack on August 5.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik had said on August 8 that Taliban commander Wali-ur-Rehman had been involved in a shootout with rival Hakimullah Mehsud, and that there were reports one of them died.

Wali-ur-Rehman, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location to a Reuters reporter who had spoken with him several times before, denied that any council meeting, or shura, had taken place to decide on a successor to Baitullah Mehsud.

"There are no differences. There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special shura meeting," he said.

Hakimullah Mehsud had earlier denied that Baitullah Mehsud had been killed by the U.S. drone strike in the first place.

Taliban commanders have said the government is fabricating reports of dissent within its ranks in order to promote division and undermine the movement.

Hakimullah Mehsud would call journalists soon to prove he too was alive, Rehman said.

"He definitely will call you and tell you everything," he said.

Western governments with troops in Afghanistan are watching to see if any new Pakistani Taliban leader would shift focus from fighting the Pakistani government and put the movement's weight behind the Afghan insurgency led by Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Hakimullah, who controls fighters in the Orakzai, Kurram, and Khyber tribal regions, is regarded as one of the leading contenders to replace Baitullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.