WASHINGTON — U.S. and Pakistani officials Thursday said they were investigating what they called credible reports that the leader of Pakistan's Taliban, a man both countries consider a significant enemy, was killed in a U.S. missile strike earlier this week.
Such reports sometimes have proven wrong in the past, but officials in both governments said there were indications that militant leader Baitullah Mehsud died in a strike by an unmanned U.S. aircraft in Pakistan's tribal areas. The strike earlier was reported to have killed his wife.
"There is reason to think he may be dead, but it can't be confirmed at this point," a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence data.
U.S. government put a $5 million bounty on Mehsud, who's thought to be 37. The U.S. has charged that he was behind the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the September 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel, which killed at least 54 people, and a string of other attacks.
U.S. and Pakistani officials declined to describe the evidence suggesting that Mehsud is dead.
The Reuters news agency quoted Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik as saying, "We suspect he was killed in the missile strike."
Initial reports Wednesday said that the missile strike in South Waziristan, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, hit a house belonging to Mehsud's father-in-law and killed his wife, but that Mehsud wasn't in the vicinity at the time.
Mehsud rose to prominence in recent years by forging rival tribal groups into a coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Pakistan's Taliban movement, and he was known for his ruthlessness.
U.S. officials and a private specialist on the region said Mehsud's death would deal a major blow to the Taliban in Pakistan.
"I think it's quite significant, because he's taken it upon himself to claim the leadership of the whole Tehrik-e-Taliban movement," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department official who's now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "All of the movement had been really very fractured and loose."
Despite being a local leader, he said, Mehsud has been "quite vocal in aligning the movement with larger terrorist causes," including groups such as al Qaida that target the U.S. and its allies.
The big question now, Weinbaum said, is whether Mehsud's death, if it's confirmed, will give Pakistan's army an incentive to undertake military operations in South Waziristan, something it appeared poised to do before backing away last month.
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