UPDATE 5-US says evidence Taliban chief dead "pretty conclusive"

Sun Aug 9, 2009 8:29pm IST

* U.S. says evidence of Mehmud's death "pretty conclusive"

* Taliban commander denies report of infighting, shootout

* Taliban says govt fabricating reports of dissent in ranks

* Mehmud's deputy says video soon to prove he is still alive

(Adds more quotes from U.S. security adviser)

By Alamgir Bitani

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug 9 (Reuters) - The United States said on Sunday the evidence was "pretty conclusive" that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud is dead, while a senior Taliban commander denied reports of infighting among its leaders.

The White House had earlier said it could not confirm the Pakistan government's claims that Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud had been killed by a CIA drone.

But asked on Sunday if Baitullah had been killed in the attack, national security adviser Jim Jones told NBC's "Meet the Press": "We think so. We put it in the 90 percent category."

"We know that there are some reports now from the Mehsud tribe that he wasn't (killed), but the evidence is pretty conclusive."

The comments add to a volley of unverifiable claims and counter-claims by the Pakistani government and the Taliban that have surrounded the reported death of Mehsud last Wednesday.

Western governments with troops in Afghanistan are watching to see if any new Pakistani Taliban leader would shift focus from fighting the Pakistani government and put the movement's weight behind the Afghan insurgency led by Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Taliban commanders have said the government is fabricating reports of dissent within its ranks to promote division and undermine the movement.

Taliban commander Wali-ur-Rehman earlier on Sunday denied reports he had been involved in a shootout with a rival for the Pakistani Taliban leadership, Hakimullah Mehsud. [ID:nISL458689]

Wali-ur-Rehman, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location to a Reuters reporter who had spoken with him several times before, also denied that any tribal council meeting, or shura, had taken place to decide on a successor to Baitullah.

"There are no differences. There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special shura meeting," he said.

Hakimullah would call journalists soon to prove he too was alive, Rehman said.

"He definitely will call you and tell you everything," he said.

Asked about Wali-ur-Rehman's comments, an intelligence officer in the region, who declined to identified, told Reuters: "He's just making it up. The shootout took place and some wounded were shifted to North Waziristan."

NOT DEAD

Hakimullah Mehsud had earlier denied that Baitullah Mehsud was killed by the U.S. drone strike in the first place [ID:nISL458980]

Baitullah's deputy, Noor Said, told Reuters by telephone that a video would soon be released to prove that Baitullah was still alive.

But Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told Reuters it was "quite certain" Baitullah was dead.

"The problem is we don't have material evidence and that won't be available for quite some time because obviously it's a remote and inaccessible area," Abbas said.

Baitullah, who suffers from diabetes, has been ill and has not been looking after the movement's affairs for the past three months, Rehman conceded.

U.S. officials have said the death of Baitullah, if confirmed, could set the movement back temporarily but was unlikely to cripple the Taliban in Pakistan or have a big impact on efforts to stem the group's resurgence in Afghanistan.

Some analysts have said the Pakistani leadership would be split over who should be the next chief, suggesting denials of his death could be aimed at buying time to choose a new leader.

"In terms of the region, it (Baitullah's death) means that the Pakistani armed forces and the Pakistan government are doing quite well in terms of their fight against extremism," White House's Jim Jones said.

"Baitullah Mehsud was the public enemy number one in Pakistan, so it's their biggest target, and we've already seen evidence of dissension in the ranks about who's going to follow him."

Hakimullah, who controls fighters in the Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber tribal regions, is regarded as one of the leading contenders to replace Baitullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Wali-ur-Rehman is another shura member and a former spokesman for Baitullah. (For more stories on Pakistan & Afghanistan, click [ID:nAFPAK]) (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Writing by Jason Subler; editing by Patrick Graham)

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