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August 11, 2009

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Al-Qaida takeover of Taliban is feared

PAKISTAN is worried that al-Qaida is trying to install its own "chief terrorist" as the head of Pakistan's Taliban following the apparent killing of the group's leader in a CIA missile strike, a top official said yesterday.

Meanwhile, one of the militants believed to be a potential successor phoned The Associated Press to dispel reports that he was killed during a clash among those vying to lead the group. The militant, Hakimullah, insisted once again that Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was alive and said the insurgent group remained united.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told BBC radio that all the "credible information" points to Mehsud having died in last Wednesday's attack. The Pakistan Taliban appear in disarray, Malik said.

"It will take some time for them to regroup," Malik said. "The other thing which is a bit worrying is that al-Qaida is getting grouped in the same place, and now they are trying to find out somebody to install him as the leader, as the chief terrorist, in that area."

Malik said Pakistan was taking "all those measures which are necessary" to respond to the scenario.

The 30-something Mehsud grew in power largely because of his links to the predominantly Arab terror network, analysts say. Mehsud and his deputies controlled swaths of Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border, a region where al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding.

Al-Qaida is believed to have provided guidance and funding to Mehsud, who in turn could provide suicide bombers and other assets to carry out attacks in Pakistan.

Malik did not specify which candidate might be al-Qaida's preference, though it is highly unlikely that Pakistan Taliban fighters would agree to an Arab candidate or anyone not of the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates the tribal belt.

American and Pakistani government and intelligence officials, as well as some Taliban commanders, have said Mehsud is likely dead.


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