Taliban denies report of militant chief's death

ISLAMABAD, Jan 31, 2010 (AFP) - The Pakistani Taliban on Sunday denied fresh rumours that their chief Hakimullah Mehsud is dead, while the army said it was investigating as reports re-emerged that he was killed by US drone missiles.

Speculation about the warlord's death first surfaced after a January 14 bombing by unmanned US spy planes in Taliban stronghold North Waziristan, but within days Mehsud released two audio statements denying his demise.

Security sources said at the time that he may have been wounded, and on Sunday local television stations carried a report that he had been buried.

"I don't have the confirmation, my sources have not confirmed it, whether he is dead or alive," chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP, adding that they were investigating the report.

Taliban spokesmen had earlier this month admitted that Mehsud was in the Shaktoi area where the drones hit, but said he left about an hour before the strike. US officials said they had no information about his reported death.

The chief Taliban spokesman again Sunday dismissed the reports.

"Hakimullah is alive and safe. The purpose of stories regarding his death is to create differences among Taliban ranks, but such people will never succeed," Azam Tariq told AFP by telephone from an unknown location.

"People who are saying that Hakimullah has died should provide proof of it -- we have already proved that he is alive and we have provided two audio tapes of him to all the media."

Mehsud assumed leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), blamed for the deaths of thousands of people in attacks, after his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in August last year.

The TTP denied Baitullah Mehsud's death for weeks, apparently amid fierce infighting over who would succeed him.

Source: AFP

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