MIR ALI, Pakistan (AP) — A purported audiotape of Pakistan’s Taliban chief emerged Friday but contained no reference to a U.S. missile strike believed to have targeted him the day before.
Twelve militants died in the strike in North Waziristan, but the Taliban chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, is believed to have escaped, intelligence officials said. A local Taliban commander, meanwhile, denied rising speculation Friday that Mehsud was wounded but said he had been in the area during the strike.
Definitively confirming the casualties in U.S. missile strikes can take weeks, and militants have in the past given misleading information about who lived and who died.
The recording was obtained by an Associated Press reporter who recognized the voice as Mehsud’s. The lack of a reference to Thursday’s strike means it could have been recorded prior, possibly to keep militants united in case Mehsud was somehow incapacitated.
“The enemy through the media is trying to demoralize the Taliban, but, thank God, the Taliban’s morale is strong and will remain strong,” Mehsud said, going on to suggest the missile campaign would prompt revenge. “From today onward, if the Taliban take a dangerous step inside Pakistan, only the Pakistani rulers will be held responsible for that, and not the Taliban.”
Another Pakistani Taliban militant played the audiotape for an AP reporter in a landline phone call, which the reporter recorded.
Killing Mehsud would be a major victory for both for Washington and Islamabad.
Under the 28-year-old’s watch, militant attacks in Pakistan have soared since October, even as the army has waged an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. Mehsud also appeared on a recent video with the Jordanian militant who killed seven CIA employees in a December suicide attack in Afghanistan.
The U.S. missile strike was the eighth such attack in two weeks in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, an unprecedented volley of the drone-fired attacks since the CIA-led program began in earnest two years ago. The surge signals the Obama administration’s reliance on the tactic despite official protest from Islamabad.
Three Pakistani intelligence officials told the AP that Mehsud was not among the dead, but that he had been expected to attend the meeting. The officials cited wireless communications intercepts tracking Mehsud’s movements, but said it was unclear if he had been at the meeting when the missiles landed.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
A local Taliban commander in South Waziristan, who agreed to a walkie-talkie conversation with an AP reporter, said Friday that Mehsud was in the area at the time the missile struck but he was fine.
“I can confirm that our emir, Hakimullah Mehsud, is alive. He is not wounded. He is leading the fighters in South Waziristan,” said the commander, Omar Khatab.
Mehsud’s predecessor, fellow tribesman Baitullah Mehsud, died in a missile strike last August in neighboring South Waziristan. For nearly three weeks, militants denied his death even as U.S. and Pakistani officials said they were increasingly confident of it.
The Pakistani Taliban appeared in disarray for those initial weeks following Baitullah Mehsud’s death, with several reports emerging of a power struggle between Hakimullah Mehsud and the man who eventually became his deputy, Waliur Rehman.
In public, Pakistani government officials criticize the missile strikes and say the United States is violating its sovereignty. But there is little doubt that Islamabad agrees to at least some of the attacks and provides targeting information for them.