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Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud has died, the country's top civilian security official told The Associated Press on Wednesday. It was the government's first categorical confirmation of the death of the feared militant, whose passing is likely to weaken, but not vanquish, the al-Qaida-linked insurgent network he led.
In a sign of the continued militant threat, a suicide bomber attacked a vehicle carrying tribal police near Pakistan's volatile border with Afghanistan, killing 17 people, including 10 policemen, said a local government official.
Reports of Mehsud's death emerged after a spate of U.S. missiles hit his stronghold in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt in mid-January. Mehsud was said to have died of wounds suffered in one of the strikes in the Waziristan region — another big victory for the CIA-led missile campaign that killed Mehsud's predecessor just six months ago.
The Taliban have repeatedly denied his death, but backed off an initial promise to prove the 28-year-old was still alive. The militant group also denied his predecessor's death for weeks until the succession question was settled.
In a response to an AP query, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, wrote, "Yes, he is dead." A senior intelligence official concurred separately. Neither gave details as to when or how the militant died.
The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In late January, a tribal elder told the AP that he attended Mehsud's funeral in the Mamuzai area of the Orakzai tribal region after Mehsud died at his in-laws' home. Some local media reports, citing unnamed Taliban sources, said Mehsud died more recently in the Multan area of central Pakistan on his way to receive medical treatment in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi.
In the first few days after the mid-January missile strikes, the Taliban released a pair of audiotapes believed to carry Mehsud's voice, in which he insisted he was fine. They have stopped offering additional evidence, one reason U.S. counterterrorism officials also are increasingly certain he died.
Still, Mehsud has been mistakenly reported dead before.
After his predecessor, fellow tribesman Baitullah Mehsud, died in an August missile strike, the Pakistani interior minister was among those who claimed Hakimullah was killed in a succession struggle. But the militant met with reporters, on camera, in the weeks afterward and went on to lead a surge of bomb attacks across the country that left more than 600 people dead.
Hakimullah Mehsud has been considered a particularly ruthless Taliban fighter with grand ambitions.
He appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan. After that Dec. 30 attack, the U.S. temporarily ramped up its missile campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas.
There are reports that commanders already are lining up to vie for his position as Taliban chief.
Among the potential successors are Waliur Rehman, the deputy Taliban commander who oversaw operations in the South Waziristan region. The Pakistani army is waging an offensive in that Afghan border area against the group that has damaged much of its infrastructure.
Another name being floated is that of Maulvi Toofan, a Taliban commander reported to be based in Orakzai, a region gaining importance as militants flee there from South Waziristan.
Malik, the interior minister, also said Wednesday that Pakistan is investigating reports that Qari Hussain, another Hakimullah deputy, had also been killed. If confirmed, Hussain's death would be a significant blow to the group because he was in charge of training suicide bombers and had close ties to other militant networks.
Analysts say a potential succession struggle in the wake of Mehsud's death could temporarily weaken the Pakistani Taliban but not cripple its ability to carry out deadly attacks.
The suicide bomber who attacked police in Pakistan's Khyber tribal area Wednesday was able to get inside their vehicle before detonating his explosives, said local tribesman Izzakhana Afridi, who witnessed the bombing.
"I saw him running and jumping into the Khasadar vehicle and then an explosion pushed me down to the ground some 50 yards (meters) away," said Afridi, using the official name of the tribal police.
Rasheed Khan, a local government official, said the blast killed 10 policemen, six civilians and one paramilitary officer.
Police official Ibrahim Khan, who survived the explosion because he was outside the vehicle, said the blast also injured about a dozen other civilians.
"I was about 30 yards (meters) away when a huge explosion occurred and I fell on the ground," said Khan. "I looked back and found our vehicle destroyed and my colleagues in a pool of blood."
No group has claimed responsibility, but Taliban militants often target Pakistani security forces.
Also Wednesday, a Pakistani army Cobra helicopter gunship crashed in the remote Tirah Valley of Pakistan's Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Another army official said the helicopter's pilot and gunner are missing and feared dead. He said the crash appeared to have been caused by either bad weather or a mechanical failure. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
This program aired on February 10, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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