DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – A suspected U.S. missile strike killed a wife of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud at his father-in-law’s house Wednesday, Pakistani intelligence and military officials said.
Mehsud associates acknowledged a woman was killed but would not confirm her identity. They said Mehsud was not at the South Waziristan home during the attack, which authorities said also killed a second person.
The missile strike could indicate that American intelligence aimed at tracking down the notorious Taliban leader is getting sharper, and that those hunting him are getting closer.
South Waziristan is part of the northwest tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan where Taliban and al-Qaida leaders – including possibly Osama bin Laden – are believed to be hiding. Dozens of American missile strikes have landed in the tribal regions over the past year, and lately they have focused on targets linked to Mehsud.
Two intelligence officials and one army official, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the missile strike had destroyed the home of Mehsud’s father-in-law, Akramud Din, and that two people had been killed, including the second of Mehsud’s two wives. Under Islam, men are allowed to have up to four wives.
One intelligence official said agents were trying to get details about the second person who died. A Mehsud associate who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said Mehsud was not in the house hit by the strike in the Jangara area.
The information is nearly impossible to confirm independently. South Waziristan is remote, rugged, dangerous and largely off-limits to journalists. In addition, militants tend to quickly surround sites hit by missile strikes and spirit away the bodies, making definitive physical proof of deaths tough to get.
The U.S. Embassy had no comment Wednesday. Washington generally does not acknowledge the missile strikes, which are fired from unmanned drones. In the past, however, American officials have said the missiles have killed several important al-Qaida operatives.
The U.S. has a $5 million bounty on Mehsud’s head, considering him a threat to its interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban commander has been accused in the past of involvement in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a charge he has denied. He is also suspected in dozens of suicide attacks in Pakistan.
If confirmed, the death of Mehsud’s wife is a sign authorities are gaining on Mehsud, a leading analyst said.
“I think they seem to have good intelligence; there is no doubt about it,” retired Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood said. “They are closing in, and they are keeping the pressure on these people.”
Pakistan’s military has carried out several air strikes targeting Mehsud, and the army has said it is preparing for a major offensive against Mehsud and his network in the tribal region. But the offensive has not gone full-scale, despite being announced weeks ago.
Masood said it was likely the military wanted to concentrate on clearing up militants still active in and around the Swat Valley elsewhere in the northwest, where it is waging a separate three-month offensive.
“At the moment, I don’t think it has any desire or intention of launching a full-fledged attack in South Waziristan. I feel they are wanting to contain them instead of having a full-fledged attack,” Masood said.
The missile strikes have continued even as Pakistan formally protests them, saying they anger local residents. Masood noted that the death of a woman in the latest strike could upset some Pakistanis.
“People in Pakistan would not like wives to be targeted … the social aspect is there,” he said. “This is a very dangerous game for a fight that involves so many civilians, innocent civilians.”
Many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the strikes, but that the Pakistani government condemns them to save face with the public. Islamabad has pushed Washington to provide it with access to the latest technology so that Pakistan’s own military could carry out such attacks.
Toosi reported from Islamabad. Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmad in Islamabad also contributed to this report.