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Militants say Mehsud alive, deny report

ISLAMABAD -- A Taliban spokesman and a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud claimed Saturday that the Pakistani Taliban chief was not killed by a CIA missile strike, contradicting another aide who confirmed Mehsud's death a day earlier.

The claims, made in calls to Pakistani and international media organizations, could undermine the growing confidence among U.S. and Pakistani officials that Mehsud died. They also could be tactical maneuvers to prevent defections as the Taliban leadership searches for a successor to Mehsud or even to delay a decision on naming an heir.

Pakistani intelligence officials acknowledged Saturday that the missile strike said to have killed the Taliban chief was carried out with Islamabad's help, indicating growing coordination between the two countries despite Pakistan's official disapproval of the strikes.

Mehsud deputy, Hakimullah, and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar each called two separate Associated Press reporters Saturday to say that Mehsud was alive. They pledged evidence of his continued existence would be brought forth in the coming days.

The reports of his death “are just to discourage and destroy the morale of the Taliban,” Umar said.

Umar said Mehsud was with his fighters “sound and fit,” and not even injured. He said Mehsud would not be provoked into coming out into the open so soon because that would make him a target.

Hakimullah is one of the potential successors to lead the militant group. However, intelligence agents said it appears likely that Hakimullah may be passed over for the top position in favor of another Mehsud aide, Waliur Rehman.

Asked if Mehsud could call AP, Hakimullah said it was not possible at the moment. And asked why he did not refute the reports of Mehsud's death earlier in the week, the militant did not answer.

Mehsud's aide Kafayat Ullah told AP a day earlier that Mehsud was killed with one of his two wives Wednesday in his stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal region.

“I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,” Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told AP by telephone.

A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition his name not be used, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law's house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor, when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief's funeral.

Pakistani and U.S. officials said they were getting the same reports and were reasonably confident in them, but did not have forensic evidence such as a body for irrefutable confirmation.

Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions, was skeptical about the Taliban's assertions Baitullah was alive, saying the claims could be part of a leadership struggle.

“If he was alive he could have spoken himself,” Shah said.

“There is, I think, a struggle going on for the leadership, and Hakimullah Mehsud is one of the contenders,” he added.

Pakistan considered the al-Qaida-linked Mehsud its No. 1 internal threat. He was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and numerous suicide attacks across Pakistan.

The U.S. initially viewed him as less of a threat than other Taliban fighters, mainly because he tended to go after Pakistani targets instead of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. That view appeared to change as Mehsud grew in strength.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, said the CIA launched the missiles after Pakistan passed along a confirmed report that the militant chief was staying at his father-in-law's home.

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