A Taliban commander who is an enemy of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claimed that more than 60 fighters have been killed during clashes between his and Baitullah’s groups in the tribal agency of South Waziristan.
Haji Turkistan Bhittani, a leader in the anti-Baitullah Taliban force known as the Abdullah Mehsud Group, said the two groups battled near the town of Jandola, which sits on the border between South Waziristan and the district of Tank.
More than 1,000 of Baitullah’s fighters attacked the village of Sura Ghar, Bhittani told Deutsche Presse Agentur, sparking a five-hour gun battle. The Pakistani military backed Bhittani’s forces with helicopter gunships and artillery strikes, forcing the Taliban to retreat. Ten of Bhittani’s fighters and more than 50 of Baitullah’s fighters were reported killed.
Bhittani’s claim could not be verified, and Baitullah’s spokesmen and commanders have not talked to the media about the incident.
Baitullah’s forces and the Abdullah Mehsud Group battled as recently as Aug. 7, when Baitullah’s fighters killed 18 members of the Abdullah Mehsud Group after hundreds of Taliban fighters descended on the group’s offices in Tank.
Bhittani’s claims are suspect
Bhittani has recently made several statements to the media that have proven to be false. Bhittani has been on the forefront of false reports related to Baitullah’s purported death. Baitullah is thought to have been killed during a US airstrike in South Waziristan on Aug. 5.
Immediately after the Aug. 5 airstrike, Bhittani claimed that Taliban commanders Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud killed each other in a shootout at a shura meeting to select Baitullah’s successor. Hakeemullah and Waliur are two senior Taliban commanders who are thought to be the frontrunners to Baitullah’s throne as leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
But later Hakeemullah and Waliur both spoke to the media and confirmed they were alive, and said no such meeting took place. The two Taliban leaders and a host of other commanders and spokesmen have said Baitullah is alive, which casts doubts that such a meeting ever took place.
Bhittani also claimed that Qari Hussain Mehsud and 40 Taliban fighters were among those killed during the strike that purportedly killed Baitullah. Qari Hussain is another senior lieutenant to Baitullah and another potential successor. Qari Hussain later spoke to the media to confirm he was alive, and also said Baitullah survived the attack.
US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Bhittani has been the source for much of the intelligence cited by the Pakistani government and Interior Minister Rehman Malik to buttress their claim that Baitullah was killed.
Background on the Abdullah Mehsud Group
Haji Turkistan Bhittani and Taliban commanders Haji Tehsil Khan Wazir and Ikhlas Khan Mehsud joined forces last month and appointed Ikhlas as the leader of the Abdullah Mehsud Group. The Taliban commanders have recently established offices in the eastern areas of South Waziristan that border Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.
Ikhlas, who is also known as Waziristan Baba, vowed to continue the fight against Baitullah’s followers in South Waziristan. “Those who are playing gory games with our brothers and sisters, are not people’s well-wishers,” he said, referring to Baitullah and his Taliban movement.
The Abdullah Mehsud group was previously led by Zainuddin Mehsud, the chief rival to Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah. On June 23, Zainuddin was assassinated by his bodyguard, just weeks after he had made public appearances denouncing Baitullah and calling him the enemy of Islam.
Zainuddin and Baitullah’s forces had clashed over the past year, and Zainuddin took credit for murdering more than 30 of Baitullah’s followers in Tank earlier this year.
After Zainuddin’s death, his brother Misabhuddin was appointed as the new leader of the Abdullah Mehsud group. Misabhuddin took command after the humiliating funeral of Zianuddin, which took place in Dera Ismail Khan in secrecy and was guarded by the Pakistani military.
The Pakistanis promoted Zainuddin and his ally Bhittani as a “pro-government” alternative to Baitullah. Zainuddin and Bhittani publicly vowed to continue sending their forces into Afghanistan to fight the US and Coalition, yet they continued to be backed by the Pakistani government.
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