The mystery over the status of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud deepened today after his deputy appointed himself acting leader and named a new spokesman for the group.
Faqir Mohammed, the leader of the Taliban faction in Bajaur and the second-in-command of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, said he has temporarily taken control of the group as Baitullah is too ill to carry out his responsibilities. Faqir insisted Baitullah was alive and that he would step down as acting leader once Baitullah was well enough to resume command.
“I have taken over the leadership of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan [the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan],” Faqir told AFP .”Two days ago our shura held a meeting in which my leadership was endorsed.” Faqir said Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud , two senior commanders who are thought to be in line for Baitullah’s command, agreed to his takeover of the Taliban.
“Baitullah Mehsud is alive but he is seriously ill,” Faqir continued. “In his absence I announce, as vice-president of the TTP, the takeover of his leadership.”
Muslim Khan, the chief spokesman for the Swat Taliban, has been named the new spokesman for the national organization, Faqir told the BBC. Khan emerged today and made a threatening phone call to the commissioner of the Malakand Division, telling him the military must end attacks against the Taliban in the northwest.
Khan replaced former spokesman Maulvi Omar, who was captured during a joint operation by security forces and a tribal lashkar, or militia, in the Mohmand tribal agency. Pakistani officials are claiming that Omar admitted Baitullah Mehsud was killed during the Aug. 5 US airstrike on his father-in-law’s compound in South Waziristan that killed his wife and seven Taliban fighters. Omar had previously told the media that Baitullah was not killed in the attack.
Pakistani and US officials have insisted that Baitullah was killed in the Aug. 5 airstrike and that the Taliban has been feuding over his succession. Pakistani officials claimed Hakeemullah and Waliur Rehman shot and killed each other during a firefight at a meeting to pick the new Taliban leader. Haji Turkistan Bhittani, a rival of Baitullah’s, has floated numerous rumors of internal turmoil within the Pakistani Taliban.
But the Taliban have denied that Baitullah was killed in the strike and have maintained that no clash between Waliur and Hakeemullah Mehsud took place. Both Taliban commanders later spoke to the media and confirmed they were alive, yet Pakistani intelligence officials still claim Hakeemullah was killed.
The Pakistani government has been unable to produce evidence that Baitullah was killed; while the Taliban have yet to release a promised videotape that would confirm Baitullah is alive. Taliban commanders have previously said Baitullah would release a tape once he recovers from his illness.
Baitullah is known to have diabetes and occasionally falls ill from the disease. Some intelligence officials believe Baitullah was at his father-in-law’s compound to receive treatment for his diabetes. Pakistani officials previously thought Baitullah died from complications in September 2008, but he later surfaced at a feast celebrating his marriage to his second wife.
US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal refuse to confirm or deny Baitullah’s death, contradicting more definitive pronouncements made by National Security Advisor General Jim Jones and Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.
One official described the reports of an intra-Taliban feud as “highly exaggerated and in some cases manufactured.”