By Lehaz Ali (AFP) – Jan 14, 2010
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud escaped a US drone strike on a militant camp Thursday that killed 10 people, the militia said after reports he may have been among the dead.
Hakimullah Mehsud, who has led the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan since August, had been in the lawless tribal area bordering Afghanistan where the missiles hit but he left before the attack, a TTP spokesman told AFP.
"Hakimullah Mehsud was present at the same place in Shaktoi where the drone attack took place," the spokesman Azam Tariq said from an undisclosed location.
"But he had left the area already when the drone attack took place. He is alive and completely safe."
His comments came after local television stations carried unconfirmed reports that Mehsud may have been killed in the strike on the border of North and South Waziristan, the seventh on Pakistan's lawless northwest tribal belt this month.
"We are receiving reports about his death but we are not 100 percent sure," a senior security official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Tariq did not say when Mehsud left the area, which Pakistan security officials described as "very remote".
Hakimullah Mehsud assumed leadership of the group blamed for the deaths of thousands of people in attacks in Pakistan after his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike on August 5.
The TTP denied Baitullah Mehsud's death for weeks, apparently amid fierce infighting over his succession.
On January 9, Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in video clip alongside a Jordanian who blew himself up on a US military base in Afghanistan last month, killing seven CIA agents and his Jordanian handler.
The Jordanian claimed the attack was to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud, and sources close to intelligence services said US efforts to track down Hakimullah Mehsud had been stepped up since the CIA bombing.
Thursday's assault took place in Pasalkot village in a remote area of North Waziristan close to the border with South Waziristan, where Pakistan's military are battling Taliban fighters.
"It was a US drone strike... At least 10 people, mostly militants, have been killed in the missile strike," said a local intelligence official. "The targeted site was a militant training camp."
A senior security official confirmed the death toll, and said four missiles were fired from unmanned planes in the remote area.
All seven strikes this year have hit North Waziristan, a bastion of Al-Qaeda fighters, the Taliban and the Haqqani network which launches attacks on the 113,000 US and NATO troops fighting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has put Pakistan at the heart of its fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamist extremists and says the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without Islamabad's help, but tensions simmer.
The strikes fuel anti-American sentiment in the Muslim nation and draw public condemnation from the government, but a US senator on Wednesday scolded Islamabad for privately supporting strikes while publicly denouncing them.
"What troubles me is the public attack on these drone attacks when at the same time they've privately obviously not told us that we must stop," said Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pakistan's leaders "not only understand and acquiesce, but in many cases privately support the drone attacks," Levin said, adding that "the minimum we should expect is a silence on their part rather than a public attack on us."
On Wednesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that the controversial drone strikes were a source of tensions with Washington.
The United States is increasing pressure on Islamabad to tackle militants who use its soil to launch attacks in Afghanistan and American officials have said that the highly secretive drone programme has eliminated some top fighters.
More than 700 people have died in drone strikes since August 2008.
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