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By Iqbal Khattak
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - A day after Pakistani television reported the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud, intelligence officials are still seeking hard evidence that the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is dead.
As of February 1, however, the Taliban had not produced any evidence rebutting reports that Hakeemullah recently died of wounds he sustained in a January 14 attack. Generally, the Taliban confirms the death of its leaders, though that news sometimes comes late.
“We are waiting for confirmation from our intelligence agencies”, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told Central Asia Online by phone from Islamabad. He added that there were “credible reports” that Hakeemullah had been wounded in an earlier attack.
Intelligence officials said they were “80 percent sure” that the TTP chief died after being brought to the Orakzai tribal region where the militants believed he could receive better medical treatment for his wounds because of the proximity to the Hangu and Kohat districts.
Hakeemullah took over the TTP from Baitullah Mehsud, who died in a missile attack August 5 in South Waziristan.
It had been speculated earlier that Hakeemullah was wounded January 14 in the Shaktoe region of South Waziristan. Sources close to the TTP confirmed to Central Asia Online that Hakeemullah was wounded in that attack. The central TTP spokesman, Azam Tariq, also conceded that the 31-year-old TTP chief was in Shaktoe during the strike, but said Hakeemullah survived the attack.
The volume of missile attacks has increased in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal belt after a Jordanian double agent blew himself up at the Chaplan forward operating base in Afghanistan’s Khost province December 30, 2009.
Military sources told Central Asia Online that details were being collected in an effort to find “hard evidence” that the TTP chief died.
“We would welcome any such development”, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
In a press statement from North Waziristan January 31, TTP spokesman Tariq said, “This type of propaganda against Hakeemullah Mehsud has been unleashed by secret agencies of the government previously, and every time it has been proved wrong and this time, it will be the same”.
Pakistan Television quoted unnamed sources who said a doctor from Hangu (close to the Orakzai tribal region) “was kidnapped to help treat Hakeemullah’s wounds”. The television report said a tribal elder attended Hakeemullah’s funeral in the Mamuzai area of the Orakzai tribal district January 28.
Tariq called newspaper and TV station offices in Peshawar Sunday to deny the report of Hakeemullah’s death. “People who are saying that Hakeemullah has died should provide proof of it”, he said.
The death of Baitullah was confirmed only after weeks of speculation when the Taliban themselves announced their leader’s death. Hakeemullah confirmed Baitullah’s death August 5 – 20 days after the missile attack that targeted him at his father-in-law’s residence in South Waziristan.
Tribal sources say Waliur Rehman Mehsud, TTP Waziristan’s chapter chief, and Qari Hussain Mehsud, a mentor of suicide bombers, could emerge as candidates to replace Hakeemullah if, indeed, he has died.