U.S. and Pakistani authorities are investigating reports that Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mahsud was killed in an American missile strike, officials of both countries say.
If confirmed, Mahsud's death would represent a significant victory in the bid by Pakistan and the U.S. to eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the region. Mahsud, believed to be 35, is aligned with Al Qaeda and is thought to be responsible for dozens of suicide bombings, beheadings and other killings all over Pakistan.
He is also suspected of being the mastermind of the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a charge he has denied.
"There is some reason to believe he may in fact be dead, but it can't be confirmed at this time," a U.S. intelligence official in Washington said Thursday. Confirmation could come from evidence obtained at the site of the missile strike. CIA analysts are also watching for online statements from Mahsud's organization acknowledging his death.
Another U.S. official said that, if confirmed, the death "would be a major victory" for U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban in South Asia.
"Mahsud brought different tribal groups together under his banner of extremism," the official said.
"The loss of his leadership skills and experience would be significant. It wouldn't mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, but it would be a true setback for them," the official said.
"It would prove that their most senior leaders can be taken off the battlefield with great precision," the official said. "It would also show them that places they thought were secure are anything but."
Both U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues involved.
The missile strike came from a U.S. drone aircraft that attacked the home of Mahsud's father-in-law in Pakistan's South Waziristan region Wednesday. Pakistani intelligence officials have said that Mahsud's second wife was among at least two people killed.
Earlier, Taliban sources said Mahsud was not among the dead.
However, Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said early today that the military was checking reports that Mahsud was in the house at the time of the strike and was killed.
"Unconfirmed sources claim he was in the house and among the dead," Abbas said. "But to confirm, [intelligence officials] need to produce someone who witnessed what had happened. Only then can we say this is a credible report from the area."
Abbas said that investigating reports of militants being killed in drone strikes is difficult because Taliban fighters usually cordon off the area immediately and remove the remains.
Abbas added that if Mahsud's death was confirmed, "of course it would make a huge difference" in Pakistan's fight against the Taliban.
A top Pakistani analyst agreed.
"His demise, if true, would be a significant blow to the Taliban rank and file," said retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah. "He's very clever. He knows when to strike and when to go into defensive mode. He has been growing in strength and now is No. 1 among all of the Taliban."
Mahsud has been viewed as the top target in the Pakistani military's efforts to root out the Taliban from the country's volatile northwest. He is believed to have as many as 20,000 fighters under his command, and has provided haven for Al Qaeda militants who initially fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2001.
Pakistani authorities believe Mahsud is responsible for orchestrating suicide attacks that have killed more than 1,200 people in Pakistan in recent years. In an interview in 2008, he described suicide bombers as "our atomic weapons."
For weeks, the Pakistani military has been preparing an offensive in South Waziristan aimed at eliminating Mahsud and his Taliban fighters. Rather than sending in ground troops as they did against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley in the spring, commanders have adopted a strategy of blocking Mahsud's supply routes in and out of South Waziristan and relying on aerial strikes to eliminate the group's hide-outs and weapons caches.
The U.S. has also stepped up its drone attacks in recent weeks.
Those strikes have targeted Mahsud and his top aides in the past; in June, a U.S. drone attack killed dozens of insurgents at a funeral that Mahsud reportedly was attending. He left before the attack.
The U.S. has put a $5-million bounty on Mahsud.
Pakistan has offered a reward of about $600,000 for the Taliban leader's death or capture.
Abbas said it may take three or four days to determine whether Mahsud died in Wednesday's strike.