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August 24, 2009

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Leadership doubt over Taliban in Pakistan

THE man named by members of the Pakistani Taliban as its new leader is as ruthless as his predecessor, taking credit for several attacks, and could order more in coming weeks to prove the terror network is still in business.

Despite the naming of Hakimullah Mehsud to replace ex-chief Baitullah Mehsud, who is believed to have been killed in a CIA missile strike on August 5, questions remained yesterday as to whether the al-Qaida-allied group was united behind their new leader.

A new Taliban leader could direct more fighters across the border in Afghanistan like other jihadi commanders in the northwest, joining insurgents there in the fight against United States and NATO forces as they try to stabilize the country eight years after the American-led invasion.

Baitullah was mostly known for suicide strikes against Pakistani civilian, government and security targets.

Two close aides to another commander, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, told reporters on Saturday that a 42-member Taliban council, or shura, had appointed Hakimullah their new leader in a unanimous decision.

Like other members of the network, they insisted Baitullah was alive but sick, hence the need for a new chief. US and Pakistani officials are almost certain he is dead.

"Now all these talks of differences should end," said one of the aides, Bakht Zada. "There have not been any differences ever."

Mohammd Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militant groups, said he believed the Taliban had not agreed on a replacement.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government had received intelligence reports about Hakimullah's appointment "as the chief terrorist" but there was no official confirmation.

The Dawn newspaper quoted one intelligence officer as saying the announcement was "a ruse" as part of the ongoing power struggle.

Verifying information from the tribal regions is difficult, especially since both the government and the Taliban have made claims in the past that turned out not to be true.

Hakimullah comes from the same tribe as Baitullah and had been seen as a likely replacement.

His apparent selection as head could shore up the Taliban, said Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Stratfor, a global intelligence company.


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