CIA says Pakistan tribal head behind assassination
Leader's network has strong ties to Al Qaeda, Taliban
WASHINGTON - The CIA has concluded that a Pakistani tribal leader's network was behind the assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, according to a US intelligence official.
The tribal leader, Baitullah Mehsud, is an extremist with strong ties to Al Qaeda and an alliance with the Taliban. Mehsud heads a network in South Waziristan, a lawless border region abutting Afghanistan. He has been blamed for an organized campaign of assassinations of Pakistani officials and suicide bombings in the country.
The CIA concluded that Mehsud was behind the Dec. 27 killing of Bhutto shortly after it occurred, according to an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The intelligence official said Mehsud, believed to be in his early 30s, is a "committed jihadist" who recruits and trains suicide operatives for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His network carries out suicide attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, primarily along the border. The attacks have extended from Nuristan Province in northeast Afghanistan to Helmand Province in the south.
He has bragged of having 3,000 would-be suicide bombers. His suicide squads have taken credit for attacks against the military and police in northwestern Pakistan, as well as bombings at a hotel in the capital of Islamabad that killed a security guard and at the Islamabad international airport.
In Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, dozens of Islamic militants died yesterday in clashes with government Pakistani troops, the army said, amid reports that the military had launched an operation to clear the area of fighters who overran military positions near the Afghan border.
The intensifying combat highlighted the deteriorating security in the region, a stronghold of Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Last month, Mehsud unveiled an alliance of Taliban militants operating in the lawless tribal area. That represented a new challenge to the authority of President Pervez Musharraf, who has deployed nearly 100,000 troops in the region since joining the US-led war on terror six years ago.
Musharraf has blamed Mehsud and pro-Taliban militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah for about 20 suicide attacks in the last three months that have killed more than 400 people.
Mehsud's fighters led the brazen capture of 213 Pakistani soldiers last August. A Western military official who has worked both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists said Mehsud has about 5,000 hard-core fighters.
In December, Mehsud became the head of a new movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that claims to unite under a single banner pro-Taliban groups who have terrorized Pakistan's northwest region. They have killed hundreds of soldiers, hunted down politicians, beheaded women, and burned schools that teach girls more than religion.
In a new show of strength this week, hundreds of Mehsud's fighters mounted the attacks on the two forts in South Waziristan that exposed the Pakistan military's weak grip over the lawless border region.
An intelligence official based in the area said security forces had in response launched a sweep to clear the area of militants. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Between 50 and 60 insurgents died yesterday when they attacked a fort in the village of Ladha with small-arms fire and rockets, a military statement said. Security forces repelled the attack using mortar and artillery fire.
Up to 30 more attackers were killed when they tried to ambush a military convoy near the village of Chakmalai, the army said. Only four troops were wounded, it said. It was not possible to confirm the casualty claims.