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Pakistan on high alert after Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud killed by U.S. drone strike

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Government says death of Hakimullah Mehsud has destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with Islamist militants

Pakistan’s security forces have been put on high alert after a CIA drone attack killed the leader of the country’s Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, in the lawless tribal areas.

A Pakistani government minister said the strike by an unmanned aircraft on Friday had destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with the militants which began this week.

Mehsud and five other Taliban militants were killed and two others were wounded in the attack after leaving a meeting at a mosque in the Dande Darpa Khel area of North Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban have named Khan Sayed Sajna as their new leader after a secret meeting of their ruling council. He is described as lacking in formal education but with great military experience.

Although Mehsud’s death has been wrongly reported in the past, informants in the tribal area said they were confident one of the country’s most agressive militant leaders was dead.

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“He was targeted as he was returning to his home from a nearby mosque where he had been holding discussions with his comrades,” said a military officer based in a city close to the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region which is home to many Islamist terrorist groups. “He was right at his front door and at least three missiles were fired.”

A senior US intelligence official told the Associated Press the US received positive confirmation on Friday morning that he had been killed.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry condemned the drone attack as a “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

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A Pakistani Taliban fighter said on Saturday that Mehsud’s body was “damaged but recognisable”, Reuters reported. Taliban commanders said Mehsud’s funeral would be held on Saturday.

Militant and official sources said Mehsud’s driver and bodyguard were among the dead.

Of the 60 council members attending the meeting, 43 voted in favour of Sayed succeeding Mehsud, according to the Karachi-based Dawn.com.

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The website said Sayed, 36, was involved in the attack on a naval base in Karachi in May 2011 and masterminded a 2012 jailbreak in which the Taliban freed 400 inmates in the north-western city of Bannu.

“Sayed has no basic education, conventional or religious, but he is battle-hardened and has experience of fighting in Afghanistan,” an official told Dawn.com.

However, other reports suggested that Sheharyar Mehsud had been appointed as caretaker leader, possibly by another shura council.

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Although Mehsud’s four-year tenure as head of Pakistan’s most feared militant group has been marked by horrific attacks that have killed scores of soldiers, government officials and civilians, his death looked likely to provoke fury among some politicians who believe the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) should be brought in to peace talks.

All political parties unanimously supported government attempts to negotiate with the TTP at a meeting in September. Just this week the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, announced that talks between the two sides had finally begun.

A government official claimed Mehsud had been discussing the matter with fellow fighters just before he was killed, while the Taliban said a government peace delegation was in Miranshah, the regional capital of North Waziristan, at the time of the attack.

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The country’s rightwing religious parties are likely to interpret the drone strike as a deliberate attempt by the US to scupper peace talks with an organisation that swears allegiance to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, who fight against Nato troops in the neighbouring country.

Sharif, who held meetings with the US president, Barack Obama, in Washington DC last week, has repeatedly called for an end to drone strikes, despite suspicions that Pakistan continues to give secret backing to the attacks.

But the US was never likely to turn down an opportunity to kill Mehsud, the mastermind of a devastating suicide bomb attack on a CIA station in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 in which seven CIA officers died.

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The ingenious plot involved a Jordanian triple agent who the CIA believed was working for them but was in fact taking orders from Mehsud.

The suicide bomber was ushered into the military base to brief CIA officers on al-Qaida, and detonated his explosive vest once he was inside.

In a video filmed before the attack and released afterwards, Mehsud appeared alongside the Jordanian, who said the attack was in retribution for the death of his fellow tribesman and predecessor as Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009.

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Saifullah Mahsud, the director of the Pakistani thinktank FATA Research Centre, said the movement was unlikely to be overly affected by the killing of its leader.

“It’s a very decentralised organisation,” he said. “They’ve lost leaders to drone strikes before.”

Mehsud’s death comes just weeks after the TTP chief took the risky and unusual step of granting an interview to a BBC cameraman who had travelled to Pakistan’s north-west.

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The interview was conducted outside despite the constant presence of drones overhead.

In May, a drone strike killed Mehsud’s second-in-command, and one of his most trusted lieutenants was captured in Afghanistan last month.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

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