DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — After weeks of denials, two Pakistani Taliban commanders acknowledged Tuesday that the group's top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was dead — claiming he died 18 days after a U.S. missile strike and disputing reports that the al-Qaida linked movement he left behind was falling apart.
Pakistani officials have said the Taliban were in disarray after Mehsud was killed in a CIA missile strike earlier this month and that his would-be successors were locked in a bitter power struggle. Some unconfirmed reports said two contenders — Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman — had been killed in a shootout during a meeting to choose an heir.
Mehsud's death is a victory for the U.S. and Pakistan. Pakistan considered him its No. 1 internal threat because of the numerous attacks he staged on its soil, while the Americans saw him as an unacceptable danger to the stability of a nuclear-armed ally and to the war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
In a joint phone call to The Associated Press, Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud confirmed an earlier Taliban announcement that the latter was the new Pakistani Taliban chief. Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, is considered a hotheaded, ruthless militant who might have problems keeping the Taliban unified, but Tuesday's call signals he's solidly in charge for now.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they are near-certain that the Aug. 5 missile strike in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, immediately felled Baitullah Mehsud. The militants insisted for weeks that the 30-something militant leader was alive, but never offered proof.
That fueled speculation the movement's commanders were trying to shore up morale as they tried to decide who would succeed Baitullah Mehsud. On Tuesday, however, Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud said they were calling together to dispel any reports of disunity. They handed the telephone back and forth to each other at an undisclosed location.
Baitullah Mehsud "got the wounds in a drone strike, and he was martyred two days ago," Hakimullah Mehsud said, a claim Rehman later repeated.
"Our presence together shows that we do not have any differences," Rehman told the AP reporter, who has interviewed both men in the past and is familiar with their voices.