DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — After weeks of denials, two Pakistani Taliban commanders acknowledged Tuesday that the group's top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was dead – claiming he died 18 days after a U.S. missile strike and disputing reports that the al-Qaida linked movement he left behind was falling apart.
Pakistani officials have said the Taliban were in disarray after Mehsud was killed in a CIA missile strike earlier this month and that his would-be successors were locked in a bitter power struggle. Some unconfirmed reports said two contenders – Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman – had been killed in a shootout during a meeting to choose an heir.
Mehsud's death is a victory for the U.S. and Pakistan. Pakistan considered him its No. 1 internal threat because of the numerous attacks he staged on its soil, while the Americans saw him as an unacceptable danger to the stability of a nuclear-armed ally and to the war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
In a joint phone call to The Associated Press, Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud confirmed an earlier Taliban announcement that the latter was the new Pakistani Taliban chief. Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, is considered a hotheaded, ruthless militant who might have problems keeping the Taliban unified, but Tuesday's call signals he's solidly in charge for now.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they are near-certain that the Aug. 5 missile strike in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, immediately felled Baitullah Mehsud. The militants insisted for weeks that the 30-something militant leader was alive, but never offered proof.
That fueled speculation the movement's commanders were trying to shore up morale as they tried to decide who would succeed Mehsud. On Tuesday, however, Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud said they were calling together to dispel any reports of disunity. They handed the telephone back and forth to each other at an undisclosed location.
Baitullah Mehsud "got the wounds in a drone strike, and he was martyred two days ago," Hakimullah Mehsud said, a claim Rehman later repeated.
"Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences," Rehman told the AP reporter, who has interviewed both men in the past and is familiar with their voices.
The two said Rehman would head the movement's wing in South Waziristan tribal region.
Pakistan considered Baitullah Mehsud its main internal threat, and his death was a significant blow to the militancy. Unlike other Taliban militants who focused on Afghanistan, Mehsud targeted the Pakistani state. He and his network were suspected in dozens of suicide attacks, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
His death was also a boost for U.S. efforts to take out militants in Pakistan's wild northwest, where al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden are suspected to be hiding out and where Taliban from both sides of the border are believed to have plotted attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's tribal regions dismissed the militants' claim Baitullah Mehsud had only recently succumbed to his wounds, saying he had very likely been dead all along.
"This is just a public relations exercise to satisfy themselves," he said.
But he said it appeared Hakimullah Mehsud, known to be a temperamental type, had won any infighting over succession.
Hakimullah first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008, when he offered to take reporters on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan.
He also has claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.
He also threatened suicide bombings in Pakistani cities in retaliation for the army's recent offensive to take back the Swat Valley from another wing of the Taliban.
Shah said Hakimullah's rise might lead to even more terrorist attacks as he attempts to prove himself. But he added that the young chief's lack of experience running large organizations could make it hard to maintain order.
"He is a very trigger-happy individual," Shah said. "I think he will know no restraint."