The head of Pakistan's Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, left a funeral procession before it was hit by a suspected US missile strike that killed 80 people mourning an earlier barrage, intelligence officials said yesterday.
They claimed that several senior Taliban militants were killed in the attack launched from a drone aircraft.
Mehsud, who is accused of plotting suicide bombings and the assassination this week of his chief Taliban rival, is the target of a looming offensive by Pakistan's military in the South Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Suspected missile strikes killed several people at a purported Taliban training centre on Tuesday. The second barrage rained down on a funeral procession for some of those killed in the first attack.
Two intelligence officials said that although Mehsud had visited the village where the funeral took place, he left before the drone-fired missiles killed 80 people and wounded dozens more. Qari Hussain, a close associate of Mehsud, denied media reports that the Taliban leader had narrowly escaped with his life.
"Baitullah Mehsud was at a secret place at the time of the American missile attack, and the attack killed only five of our colleagues, and the remaining 45 slain men were villagers," he said.
Dozens of air-strikes have been carried out in the tribal regions over the last year, drawing criticism from Pakistan's leaders that they fire up raging anti-Americanism and jeopardise military operations. An impending offensive will focus on Mehsud, who reportedly has up to 12,000 men under his control.