Pakistani Taliban seen as regrouping

An agreement by two top leaders of the Pakistani Taliban to share power following the slaying of their chief is a sign the al-Qaida-allied movement is regrouping, but questions remain whether the network is as united as it seeks to appear.

Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud attends a news conference in an unknown location in this undated file image from a video grab. Pakistani Taliban militants confirmed on August 26, 2009 for the first time that their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed, the BBC reported.

Two intelligence officers warned Wednesday that the group's new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, may stage high-profile attacks in Pakistani cities to show it is still in business and avenge the death of chief Baitullah Mehsud in a CIA missile strike on Aug. 5 in its northwestern stronghold close to the Afghan border.

In a joint phone call late Tuesday to The Associated Press, Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman confirmed an earlier Taliban announcement that Hakimullah is now overall chief of the Pakistani Taliban, which has carried out scores of suicide attacks in Pakistan since Baitullah united various militant factions under its banner in 2007.

The two men said Rehman would head the Taliban in the key region of South Waziristan, where most of the movement's up to 25,000 fighters are based. The region was also the birthplace of Baitullah.

"It seems for the time being at least they are willing to work together," said Rahimullhah Yousafzai, editor of the News International newspaper in Peshawar, the main northwestern city. "It seems that Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman have found a power-sharing formula. Both main contenders have been given positions."

The commanders also confirmed the death of Baitullah, ending weeks of Taliban denials that analysts said showed the movement was buying time before it announced a leader. Pakistan and the United States have both said for weeks they believed Baitullah had been killed.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have portrayed the movement as being in disarray following the death of Mehsud.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik also said Rehman or Hakimullah, or both, had been killed in a shoot-out over who should be the new leader.

The Taliban have suffered other setbacks in the past year. They have been hit by Pakistani military offensives in the Bajur and Mohmand regions as well as in the Swat Valley and are hemmed in in South Waziristan by the army and tribal militias loyal to the government.

One intelligence official described Hakimullah as a figurehead leader, and said it was Rehman who held the true power within the movement.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because — like all Pakistani intelligence agents — he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said there were fears Hakimullah could stage suicide bombings in Pakistani cities to indicate he held a commanding position in the Taliban. Another officer said intelligence agencies had sent a report to the government advising increased security. That official also did not want to be named.

The Taliban under Baitullah concentrated mostly on attacking targets in Pakistan, but also sent fighters to attack U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. American officials will be watching closely to see whether the new leadership directs more fighters across the border.

While the slaying of Baitullah was in itself a major blow to the militants, Pakistan's government is hoping the movement may splinter in its wake and lose some of its ability to stage attacks.

Security analyst Talat Masood said the agreement announced Tuesday may not last long.

"We have to wait and see to what extent they have sunk their differences and whether they are really prepared to accept each other's leadership," he said. "As of now, it is more of a tactical move on their part to give an impression that there are no differences."

Hakimullah, 28, and Rehman, believed to be in his early 40s, insisted in their joint phone call there was no split.

"Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences," Rehman told the AP reporter, who has interviewed both men in the past and is familiar with their voices.

Hakimullah first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008, when he offered to take them on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan. He also has claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.

Source: AFP

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