Taliban forces loyal to Baitullah Mehsud are reported to have killed 17 fighters loyal to commander Mullah Nazir during an ambush South Waziristan.
Baitullah’s forces are said to have carefully set up an ambush for Nazir’s fighters as their convoy moved towards Wana, the main town in South Waziristan and a stronghold of Nazir.
“They were hiding behind the rocks and, as soon as our people reached there, they opened fire,” Shaheen Wazir, a spokesman for Nazir told Reuters. “It was so sudden and quick that none of our men fired back.”
A spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud denied his forces ambushed Nazir’s men.
In the past, Nazir and Baitullah’s followers clashed over the presence of Uzbek fighters in South Waziristan, as well as over traditional tribal rivalries. Baitullah leads the Mehsud tribe, which is based in the western half of South Waziristan, while Nazir leads the Wazir tribe in the eastern half of the agency.
Both leaders have differed over jihad strategy. Nazir favors battling in Afghanistan, while Baitullah has favored taking on the Pakistani state. Both men host al Qaeda leaders and training camps, and both send forces to fight the US in Afghanistan.
Nazir and Baitullah settled their difference last February at the behest of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The two Taliban leaders joined with North Waziristan’s Hafiz Gul Bahadar and formed the United Mujahideen Council and vowed to pool forces to fight the Pakistani state if the military moved into the tribal areas. The council also agreed to continue the jihad in Afghanistan and to strike at the US and India.
The clash between Nazir and Baitullah’s forces would be the first since the United Mujahideen Council was formed.
Separately, the military claimed it killed 15 of Baitullah’s fighters during artillery and airstrikes on Taliban strongholds in the Ladha region, including the town of Makeen.
Reports over the status of Baitullah and the state of the Pakistani Taliban have been confused as conflicting reports have been released by the government and the Taliban.
The Pakistani and US governments have been claiming the Taliban have been battling internally since Baitullah was purportedly killed during a US airstrike in South Waziristan. The Pakistani governemnt said two senior Taliban leaders who were vying for control over Baitullah’s leadership of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan killed each other at a meeting to choose Baitullah’s replacement.
The Taliban have denied Baitullah was killed and said no such meeting or a clash to choose Baitullah’s successor took place. The two Taliban leaders have since spoken to the media and confirmed they were alive. The Taliban have said Baitullah will release a tape to prove he is alive, but no tape has been released at this time.
Baitullah’s fighters have been clashing with a rival Taliban faction known as the Abdullah Mehsud Group, which is backed by the government. The Abdullah Mehsud Group is not part of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, but does send fighters into Afghanistan to fight NATO forces. Haji Turkistan Bhittani, a leader within the Abdullah Mehsud Group, is believed to be behind most of the reports of Baitullah’s death and the intra-Taliban fighting.