Pakistani Taliban fighters secretly buried their leader early on Saturday after he was killed by a U.S. drone aircraft and quickly moved to replace him while vowing a wave of suicide bombs in revenge.
The Pakistani government denounced the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud as a U.S. bid to derail planned peace talks and some politicians demanded that U.S. military supply lines into Afghanistan be blocked in response.
Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, and three others were killed on Friday in the militant stronghold of Miranshah in northwest Pakistan, Pakistani security officials and militants said.
Mehsud's vehicle was hit after he attended a meeting of Taliban leaders, a Pakistani Taliban fighter said, adding Mehsud's body was "damaged but recognizable". His bodyguard and driver were also killed.
He was secretly buried under cover of darkness in the early hours by a few companions amid fears that his funeral might be attacked by U.S. drones, militants and Pakistani security sources said.
"Every drop of Hakimullah's blood will turn into a suicide bomber," said Azam Tariq, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman.
"America and their friends shouldn't be happy because we will take revenge for our martyr's blood."
Mehsud took over as leader of the al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban in 2009. The group's two previous leaders were killed in attacks by U.S. missile-firing drones.
Taliban commanders voted to replace him with the movement's number two, Khan Said, who is also known as Sajna.
Said is believed to have masterminded an attack on a jail in northwest Pakistan that freed nearly 400 prisoners in 2012 and a big attack on a Pakistani naval base.
But some commanders were unhappy with the choice and wanted more talks, several militants said, indicating divisions within the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of factions allied with the Afghan Taliban and battling the Pakistani state in the hope of imposing Islamist rule.
They have killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and numerous members of the security forces. They claimed the killing of an army general in September.
In Washington, two U.S. officials also confirmed Mehsud's death in a CIA drone strike. A White House spokeswoman said he was not in a position to confirm the report but if true, it would be a serious loss for the Pakistani Taliban.
In 2010, Mehsud appeared in a farewell video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees at a base in Afghanistan.
"ATTACK ON TALKS"
Mehsud was in his mid-30s and had a sharp face framed by a beard and a tangle of long hair, usually flowing from beneath a traditional Afghan hat.
Despite his reputation as an uncompromising militant commander, Pakistan's new government had promised to try to stop the violence through peace talks and it reacted angrily to Mehsud's killing.
"The U.S. has tried to attack the peace talks with this drone but we will not let them fail," Information Minister Pervez Rashid told media, referring to the negotiations, which the Taliban said on Friday had yet to start.
Shah Farman, a spokesman for the government of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said provincial legislators would pass a resolution on Monday to cut NATO supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan. A main one passes through the nearby Khyber Pass.
The supply lines through U.S. ally Pakistan have been crucial since the latest Afghan war began in 2001 and remain vital as the United States and other Western forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Residents of Miranshah, the capital of the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, said Pakistani Taliban fighters were converging on the town and firing furiously at drones buzzing high in the sky.
About eight drones were seen overhead as well as a larger aircraft that seemed to be a aeroplane or a type of drone that residents said they had not seen before.
"We thought it was a C-130 aircraft but it was a special spy plane, bigger in size," resident Farhad Khan said by telephone from Miranshah. "The militants fired from their anti-aircraft guns to hit it but couldn't."
Shops and markets were open in the town. Residents said they were worried about a possible army offensive, but not Taliban reprisals. They expected the militants to launch attacks elsewhere in Pakistan.
"We feel the militants will show their reaction in major cities like they usually do," said resident Assadullah Dawar said.
In May, Mehsud's deputy was killed by drone nearby. Last month, one of his top deputies was captured in Afghanistan.