ISLAMABAD - Pakistan said on Wednesday it had information suggesting Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud had died of wounds inflicted in a U.S. drone aircraft attack in January.
But in a reminder of the danger posed by the militants, even if, as looks increasingly likely, their leader is dead, a suicide car-bomber killed seven policemen and five passers-by in the Khyber region on the Afghan border.
Speculation has swirled over the Taliban leader's fate since January 14 when security officials said a missile-firing U.S. drone had targeted him. A drone was believed to have attacked him again three days later, officials said.
I have credible information that he's dead but I don't have any confirmation, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.
But two Taliban officials, including a senior commander, called Reuters earlier in the day to deny that Mehsud had died.
The rumors about his fate intensified on Tuesday after another Taliban official, requesting anonymity, told journalists the leader had died of wounds.
The death of Mehsud, notorious for his ferocity, could temporarily disrupt the Taliban campaign of bomb attacks.
But the al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban are part of a militant network that includes groups from Punjab province and has a presence in most parts of the country. That network remains intact and highly dangerous..
A suicide bomber attacked a police patrol on Wednesday in the Khyber region, on a road leading to the main crossing on the Afghan border, killing seven policemen and five passers-by, said Rahat Gul, a government official in the region.
The U.S. drone strikes aimed at Mehsud last month came after a video emerged showing him with a Jordanian double agent bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan on December 30.
In Washington, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said on Tuesday he could not confirm Mehsud's death but it was up to the Taliban to prove he was alive.
At this point, the onus is on the Pakistani Taliban to produce this guy -- especially as time wears on, the official said.
Hakimullah certainly hasn't shied away from the terrorist limelight before, so if he's alive, why is he doing so now when there's so much speculation about his demise? Here's to hoping the speculation is correct, the official said.
Two Taliban officials, including Noor Jamal, a little-known commander Pakistani newspapers said could succeed Mehsud, denied he was dead.
Hakimullah was neither killed nor I have been appointed acting amir (chief) of the Taliban, Jamal, who is also known as Toofan, which means strong in Urdu, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Wali-ur-Rehman, a Taliban commander who is in charge of militants in their South Waziristan bastion, is also considered a possible successor to Mehsud.
Separately, a Pakistani military helicopter gunship crashed in the Khyber region, where security forces are fighting militants, killing two crew on board, the military said.
The cause of the crash was believed to have been bad weather, said a military official.
(Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani in PESHAWAR; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton)