'Shoot-out' at Taliban meeting

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The Independent Online

A Taliban power struggle following the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the organisation in Pakistan, has apparently turned violent with reports of a deadly shoot-out between the two men vying to succeed him.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that leading Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed after a firefight with Wali-ur-Rehman, a close aide and relative of Baitullah Mehsud.

According to Mr Malik's account, the pair turned their guns on each other as the Pakistan Taliban's "shura", or council, met in South Waziristan to decide on the appointment of a new chief.

But the revelation triggered a confusing swirl of claims and counter-claims, with Taliban commanders denying that either commander had been killed, or there had been a shootout or a council meeting at all, and even claiming that Baitullah Mehsud was still alive.

Hakimullah, the young and hot-headed militant in charge of Taliban operations in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal agencies told the BBC's Urdu Service that Baitullah had survived Wednesday's airstrike just hours before reports of his own death began to circulate.

Pakistan has said that it has received "credible evidence" that Baitullah was killed in the air-strike along with his wife, but that it is still waiting for "physical evidence". As yet, Baitullah has not surfaced to assert that he is among the living, as he has done after previous claims of his death.

In Washington, General James Jones, President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser, said yesterday that evidence of Baitullah's death's was "pretty conclusive". General Jones said that the ensuing power struggle within the Pakistan Taliban was a good sign of progress.

But Wali-ur-Rehman contacted Reuters yesterday to rubbish the government's claims of a lethal dispute.

"There are no differences," said Mr ur-Rehman, who served as Baitullah's spokesman for a period. "There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special shura meeting," he said, speaking from an undisclosed location. In an interview with the BBC, Mr Malik said that the Taliban were now dabbling in propaganda after the demise of their leader.