March 6, 2010 5:26 pm

Taliban commander killed in US airstrike

Pakistan officials believe a deputy commander of the country’s Taliban movement with links to al Qaeda has been killed in an airstrike by Pakistani helicopter gunships.

If confirmed, the death of Faqir Mohammad would represent the latest in a series of blows to the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, which has waged a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks aimed at undermining the government.

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said he had received reports that Mr Mohammad had been killed. “We are awaiting final confirmation in a day or two but I will be surprised if he has survived,” Mr Malik told reporters.

A senior interior ministry official said Mr Mohammad was among 16-20 Taliban militants killed in an attack carried out by Pakistani helicopter gunships in the remote Mohmand region on Friday. The Pakistan Taliban was not immediately available for comment.

Mr Mohammad was suspected to be close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, the Islamist terror network. US officials suspect the al Qaeda leaders may now be based in hiding places in Pakistan’s rugged border region.

Pakistan’s Taliban has suffered a series of losses of leaders in recent months. Hakimullah Mehsud, the latest figure to emerge as leader of the movement, is believed to have been killed by a missile fired by a US drone in January. Baitullah Mehsud, the previous leader of the Pakistan Taliban, was killed in a similar US drone attack in August.

The US is supporting Pakistan’s fight against the country’s Taliban movement, but wants Pakistan to do more to broaden its campaign to target members of the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban is a separate movement from the Pakistan Taliban, though they share a similar Islamist philosophy. The Afghan Taliban uses bases in Pakistan to stage attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has arrested a number of high-profile members of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement in recent weeks, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement’s military chief and second-in-command. The arrests have raised hopes in the Barack Obama administration that Pakistan is taking a tougher line on the Afghan Taliban, which was supported for years by Pakistan’s security services.

Many western diplomats caution, however, that it is too early to tell how far Pakistan is willing to target Afghan militants it has long viewed as proxies to exert influence in Afghanistan in competition with rival India.

A Pakistani interior ministry official said that the top leadership council of the Afghan Taliban, known as the Quetta Shura, had been made “practically dysfunctional” after the recent arrests of its leaders. “At least half the members of the 18-member shura are now in custody” the official said.

However, Afghanistan’s Taliban movement has managed to broaden the scope and strength of its insurgency in spite of the loss of other important leaders who have been killed or captured in recent years. The impact of the latest arrests on its battle-field operations remains unclear.

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