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U.S. Says Evidence 'Pretty Conclusive' That Taliban Chief Dead

U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- The United States says the evidence is "pretty conclusive" that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud is dead, while a senior Taliban commander denied reports of infighting among its leaders.

The White House had earlier said it could not confirm the Pakistan government's claims that Mehsud had been killed by a CIA drone.

Asked on August 9 if Mehsud had been killed in the attack, U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones told NBC's "Meet the Press": "We think so. We put it in the 90 percent category."

The comments add to a volley of unverifiable claims and counterclaims by the Pakistani government and the Taliban that have surrounded the reported death of Mehsud on August 5.

Taliban commander Wali-ur-Rehman earlier on August 9 denied reports he had been involved in a shootout with a rival for the Pakistani Taliban leadership, Hakimullah Mehsud.

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

"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 was killed by the U.S. drone strike in the first place.

Hakimullah 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.

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

Asked about Wali-ur-Rehman's comments, an intelligence officer in the region, who declined to identified, told Reuters: "He's just making it up. The shootout took place and some wounded were shifted to North Waziristan."


Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told Reuters that it was "quite certain" Mehsud was dead.

"The problem is we don't have material evidence and that won't be available for quite some time because obviously it's a remote and inaccessible area," Abbas said.

Still, Mehsud's deputy, Noor Said, told Reuters by telephone that a video would soon be released to prove that Mehsud was still alive.

Mehsud, who suffers from diabetes, has been ill and has not been looking after the movement's affairs for the past three months, Rehman conceded.

Some analysts have said the Pakistani Taliban's leadership would be split over who should become the next chief, suggesting denials of his death could be aimed at buying time until a new leader is chosen.

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.

Wali-ur-Rehman is another shura member and a former spokesman for Mehsud.