ISLAMABAD - Pakistan believes Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty (S$7.2 million) on his head, was probably killed with his wife and bodyguards in a missile attack two days ago, the interior minister said on Friday.
An intelligence officer in South Waziristan told Reuters that Mehsud's funeral had already taken place, while Pakistani media cited their own security sources, saying Mehsud was dead.
"He was killed with his wife and he was buried in Nargosey," the officer said, referring to a tiny settlement about 1 km (half a mile), from the site of the attack, believed to have been carried out by a pilotless U.S. drone aircraft.
Diplomats in Islamabad say Mehsud's death would mark a major coup for Pakistan, but many doubt it will help Western troops fighting the Taliban insurgency
. Most of his focus has been on attacking Pakistan's government and security forces.
"We suspect he was killed in the missile strike," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said. "We have some information, but we don't have material evidence to confirm it."
Other Pakistani officials struck a similar note, hedging against a chance that Mehsud might have survived the blitz.
One senior official said the missile attack also killed Mehsud's brother and seven bodyguards as well as his wife.
Intelligence officials and relatives confirmed earlier that Mehsud's second wife had been killed in the missile strike that targeted her father's home in an outlying settlement close to Makeen village in the South Waziristan tribal region.
PREVIOUS TALIBAN ESCAPES
Taliban leaders presumed dead have sometimes resurfaced later and there were reports from other media quoting Taliban sources saying that Mehsud was wounded and others saying he was dead.
If Mehsud was killed, regular Pakistani Taliban spokesmen were unlikely to confirm it until a new leader was chosen.
Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007 and his fighters have staged a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
He is accused of being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, a charge he has denied. Conspiracy theories abound over who killed the former prime minister.
A U.S. official said there were grounds to believe Mehsud was dead. "There is reason to believe that reports of his death may be true, but it can't be confirmed at this time," the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. missile attacks on Mehsud territory in South Waziristan became more frequent after Pakistan ordered a military offensive against him in June.
Neither the Pakistani nor U.S. government confirms such attacks because of sensitivities over violation of Pakistan's territorial sovereignty.
TALIBAN LEADERS TO MEET?
Intelligence agents also picked up signs that leaders of various Taliban factions planned to gather for a shura, or council meeting, somewhere in Waziristan on Friday.
There is speculation they will choose a new leader to replace Mehsud, and the names of militants Hakimullah Mehsud, Maulana Azmatullah and Wali-ur-Rehman have surfaced as likely successors.
Hakimullah Mehsud commands Taliban militants in three tribal regions of Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram and is said to be an important leader in the Taliban hierarchy.
Like Baitullah, Azmatullah also hails from the Shahbikhel - a sub-tribe of the Mehsuds. He is an important commander and a member of the Taliban shura. Wali-ur-Rehman is another shura member and a former spokesman for Baitullah.
Retired brigadier Mehmood Shah, former chief of security in the tribal areas, doubted Mehsud could be easily replaced.
"It is quite a setback for the Taliban movement. He is the one man who really organized Taliban, kept unity among them and really forwarded the agenda with a lot of ... strategic thinking," said Shah.
Clashes on Friday exposed the state of flux in the Taliban network. Fighting between Mehsud fighters and those of a more pro-government militant, commander Turkistan Bitani, killed 17 militants in Tank, a town at the gateway to South Waziristan.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Paul Eckert in Washington, Alamgir Bitani in Peshawar and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)