DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — The Pakistani Taliban confirmed on Saturday the death of its leader in a U.S. drone strike the day before, as the group's leadership council met to begin the process of choosing a successor.
The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, a ruthless leader known for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and for a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of the security forces, is a heavy blow for the militant group.
The drone strike came as Pakistan's government tries to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, as the militant group Mehsud headed was formally called. Already the drone attack threatened to worsen U.S.-Pakistan relations as some Pakistani politicians called the strike an attempt to sabotage the peace talks.
“We are proud of the martyrdom of Hakimullah Mehsud,” Azam Tariq, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman in the South Waziristan tribal area, said in the first official confirmation of the leader's death. “We will continue our activities.”
The Taliban's Shura Council, a group of commanders representing various wings of the group, gathered at an undisclosed location Saturday in the North Waziristan tribal area, intelligence officials and militant commanders said. That's the same region where the U.S. drone strike killed Mehsud on Friday.
The Shura will continue to meet for a few days before it makes a decision, Tariq told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Two candidates to succeed Mehsud are Mullah Fazlullah, the Pakistani Taliban chief for the northwest Swat Valley, and Khan Sayed, the leader in the South Waziristan tribal area. The information came from three Pakistani intelligence officials and five Taliban commanders interviewed by phone.
Omar Khalid Khurasani, who heads the group's wing in the Mohmand tribal area, is also in the running, two of the militant commanders said. He was not believed to be a strong candidate.
Mehsud and the other four militants killed in the strike were buried Saturday at an undisclosed location, the Taliban commanders said.