DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban confirmed the death of their leader in a U.S. drone strike Saturday, a day after he was killed, 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 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 the Pakistan government tries to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, as the militant group Mehsud headed was formally called. Already the strike 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 commander said. That's the same region where a U.S. drone strike killed Mehsud on Friday.
The Shura will continue to meet for a few days before it makes a decision, Tariq, the Taliban spokesman, 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.
All the officials and the commanders spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Drones still flew over North Waziristan on Saturday. Witnesses in the towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah reported that Mehsud's supporters fired at them in anger.
Mehsud was killed in a village outside Miran Shah when multiple missiles slammed into a compound just after a vehicle carrying the militant commander arrived. The other militants killed were identified as Mehsud's cousin, uncle and one of his guards. The identity of the fourth militant is not yet known.
Mehsud gained a reputation as a merciless planner of suicide attacks in Pakistan. After taking over as the Pakistani Taliban's leader, he tried to internationalize the group's focus.
He's believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan and a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square, as well as assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and members of security forces.
Mehsud was on the U.S. most-wanted terrorist lists with a $5 million bounty.
He also increased coordination with al-Qaida and Pakistani militants, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and funded the group's many attacks by raising money through extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery.
"This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban which may spark internal fractures in the movement," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped craft the agency's drone campaign.
"Since the Taliban are a key al-Qaida ally it will be a setback for them as well," said Riedel, who now runs the Washington-based Brookings Institution's intelligence project.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in part on promises to bring peace to the country through negotiations instead of more military operations. On Thursday, Sharif had said talks with the militants were underway.
A senior Pakistani security official said a delegation was to travel Saturday to North Waziristan to convey a message from the government about starting the talks. But the official said the delegation would now not be going.
He said the delegation contained no one serving in the government, but refused to share details about its membership.
Mehsud's death will complicate efforts by the government to negotiate a peace deal. After a drone strike killed the group's No. 2 in May, the Tehreek-e-Taliban fiercely rejected any idea of peace talks and accused the government of cooperating with the U.S.
Pakistani officials regularly criticize the attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the government is known to have supported some strikes in the past.
"We have properly understood the duel policy of the Pakistani government and its hypocrisy," said Tariq, the Taliban spokesman, on Saturday.
In recent weeks, the TTP appeared to soften its position against talks but had still made multiple demands for preconditions to any negotiating, including the end of drone strikes in the tribal areas.
Popular politician Imran Khan has been one of the most vocal critics of the strikes. His party runs the government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and has threatened to block trucks carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan unless the attacks stop.
Speaking on Pakistan's Dunya TV late Friday, Khan said the U.S. was trying to sabotage efforts to bring peace to Pakistan.
"Now it is proven who is against peace in this country. They will never let peace to come in this country," Khan said. "Whenever there has been any effort for peace and dialogue it has been sabotaged by drone attacks."
Dawar reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Associated Press writer Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.