Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has said authorities are heading to a remote eastern tribal district "to be one 100 percent sure" of the veracity of intelligence indicating that Pakistan's Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud, was among those killed in a recent missile strike.
If confirmed, Mehsud's death would mark the demise of Pakistan's most wanted fugitive and deprive Al-Qaeda of a reputed "key facilitator" long pursued by U.S. counterterrorism forces in the region.
"According to my intelligence information, these reports are correct, but we are carrying out ground verifications," Qureshi told journalists in Islamabad on August 7. "Once we get the ground verifications, then it will be 100 percent confirmed. But, according to my information, these reports are correct and he has been taken out."
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik and other unnamed Pakistani and U.S. officials have suggested that Mehsud is probably dead.
The leader of Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan (Movement of Taliban in Pakistan), Baitullah was likely killed in a suspected U.S. missile strike on a relative's home in the South Waziristan region on the evening of August 5.
The strike also killed the 33-year-old militant leader's wife and many bodyguards.
Unnamed Pakistani officials and Mehsud's aide were quoted as saying that his funeral had already taken place and that the Taliban were holding consultations to announce his successor. Significant Blow
Former Brigadier General Mehmood Shah, who used to head security affairs in Pakistan's troubled tribal areas, tells RFE/RL that Mehsud's contacts and leadership qualities had brought him close to Al-Qaeda and a host of other armed groups.
Those other groups include the Afghan Taliban network headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani; Central Asian militants; and disparate groups of Pakistani militants who all united under Mehsud's leadership in late 2007 under the Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan umbrella.
"In the end," Shah says of Mehsud, "it seemed that he was working directly under Al-Qaeda's command."
"He was very successful in his attacks against Pakistan and thus emerged as a big problem for Pakistan," Shah adds. "It was only because of his personal command qualities that he kept good relations with all these groups and he was a symbol of unity among the Taliban or terrorists."
Homes thought to belong to Baitullah Mehsud relatives and destroyed in the suspected U.S. drone attack in Dera Ismail Khan on August 5.
Mehsud concluded a peace treaty with the Pakistani government in 2005 but was later seen as exploiting the opportunity to reorganize a network that was estimated to have had 20,000 fighters at its peak.
Over the years, Mehsud's fighters have claimed responsibility for a series of deadly attacks inside Pakistan.
Suicide attacks that struck fear across Pakistan were his hallmark tactic. Pakistani authorities also blamed him for the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, although he always denied orchestrating that attack.
In recent months, Pakistan's relatively successful military operation in Swat and the siege around Waziristan helped restrict Mehsud to a small part of South Waziristan. This, experts suggest, made him more vulnerable to attacks by Pakistani jets or U.S. drones.
Mehsud was nuclear-armed Pakistan's most hunted man, with Islamabad offering a $600,000 reward for his killing or capture. Declaring him a "key Al-Qaeda facilitator," the United States significantly added to that bounty in late March by announcing a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.Changing Public Mood
The news of Mehsud's possible death came amid Pakistani media coverage of a delegation of Pashtun tribal elders from the Mehsud tribe who had traveled to Islamabad to petition Pakistan's prime minister and other officials to ensure that civilians and their property are protected as the government continues its offensive against extremists.
Thousands of families have been displaced from Waziristan and the authorities have employed colonial-era laws to clamp down on tribe members to get their help tracking down militants hiding in their homeland. In the past five years, extremists are blamed for killing hundreds of Pashtun tribal leaders, political activists, and journalists.
Displaced South Waziristanis receive rations in Dera Ismail Khan, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province
Such Taliban tactics, Shah says, have alienated a large part of the local population -- a factor that might have played a role in Mehsud's downfall.
"People have now turned against them because they are sick of them," Shah says. "People have suffered because of them, and now 85 percent of the population in Pakistan supports military efforts against them. People say that there should be no negotiations with them because they have damaged Pakistan."Minimal Impact On Afghan Security
Although occasionally blamed for attacks on international forces in neighboring Afghanistan, analyst Shah suggests Mehsud's main focus was on Pakistan. In that light, Shah predicts Mehsud's death would have little impact on the security situation inside Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Shah says, the Pakistani offensive against the extremists has generated an intense debate inside Afghan Taliban circles "about its implications for what will happen inside Afghanistan."
"Baitullah Mehsud's death will cause overall drawback to the Taliban movement, but it will have little direct impact in Afghanistan," he says, adding a note of caution regarding that country's August 20 presidential vote. "Because of Haqqani's network, the concerns about election security will remain in place."Leadership Void
Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, analyst Rustam Shah Mohmand says Mehsud's death could further strain the already fragmented Taliban in Pakistan.
Mohmand, a former Pakistani diplomat, says the movement now faces a crucial leadership challenge. "I think that his comrades and successors cannot reach his level, so whoever replaces him will be very weak," he says, adding, "This is an opportunity for the Pakistani government to go ahead and restore peace in that region."
Reports have named Mehsud's trusted lieutenant, Hakimullah Mehsud, as a likely successor. Reports also mention two other possible choices in the relatively unknown militant commanders Wali Rehman and Azmatullah Mehsud.
Reportedly diabetic in the last few years, Mehsud is one of the six brothers born to a poor prayer leader who lived outside Waziristan in neighboring Bannu district.
He never graduated from a religious seminary, or madrasah, in the dusty border town of Miran Shah.
But Mehsud developed a close relationship with the network of then anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was headquartered in Miran Shah. Haqqani was close to Arab fighters including Osama Bin Laden.
When Haqqani became a minister in Afghanistan's Taliban administration, Mehsud fought for the Taliban in the Shomali plains north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and other frontline locations.
But he returned to Waziristan after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001. There, together with other Taliban commanders, Mehsud facilitated the return of Arab, Central Asian, and Afghan extremists to Waziristan.