A CIA drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in what the government in Islamabad described as an attempt to derail peace talks in the country.
The Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest the attack after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud was confirmed today by his Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan group, as reported by news organizations including the Associated Press. Mehsud, the target of the strike yesterday in North Waziristan, was indicted in the U.S. three years ago for his alleged role in a suicide bombing that killed seven Central Intelligence Agency employees in Afghanistan in 2009.
Mehsud’s death would be a coup for U.S. efforts to weaken the Taliban, even as it complicates Pakistan’s push to engage in talks with the Islamic militants. The U.S. had been seeking to restore closer ties with the nuclear-armed nation through economic aid, which President Barack Obama stressed in an Oct. 23 meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Washington.
“America has interfered with our peace process,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said today at a press conference in Islamabad. “The efforts have been ambushed.”
Pakistan will review “every aspect” of cooperation following the attack, which violated an agreement with the U.S. not to target Mehsud’s group during peace talks, Khan told reporters.
In a comment aimed at the U.S., he said: “Your approach of assisting the peace process is by killing the leader of the other outfit a day before consultations are to begin?”
The Foreign Ministry said the drone strike was “a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Even as the Pakistani government has denounced such attacks, it has cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies in locating, tracking and targeting leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, including Mehsud, according to a U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
Intelligence on Mehsud’s whereabouts this time was considered to be of medium to high credibility -- a level of confidence that triggered the strike, the U.S. official said.
Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. hasn’t extended to efforts to find Mullah Muhammad Omar and other leaders of the Afghan Taliban, considered allies by the Pakistani government.
Mehsud has been reported killed several times, only to resurface. For that reason, U.S. officials were reluctant to confirm reports of his death. In this case, accounts that he was killed are considered credible, the U.S. official said.
Al Jazeera television reported there were multiple deaths in the strike, which it said targeted a meeting of Taliban leaders. A meeting of Pakistan’s Taliban council today chose Khan Sayed as their new leader, Dawn newspaper reported.
Imran Khan, whose Tehrik-e-Insaaf party controls the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has threatened to block NATO supply lines to Afghanistan in retaliation for what he described as a U.S. attempt to sabotage the negotiations through drone attacks.
“We won’t let these supplies pass even if we have to sacrifice our government” in the border province, Khan, a former professional cricket star, told reporters today in Lahore.
Mehsud had been accused of conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens abroad in the bombing on Dec. 30, 2009. Seven CIA employees were killed and six others injured by a Jordanian double agent who was allowed onto a base in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border in the belief he was bringing intelligence on al-Qaeda.
After the attack, the Pakistani Taliban released a video of the bomber in which Mehsud justified the killings.
Before yesterday’s raid, drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas had fallen to 14 this year after peaking at 115 in 2010, according to data from the Pakistan Defense Ministry released by the parliament. There were 67 civilians killed in the attacks from 2008 to 2013, the figures showed.
Amnesty International, a human-rights group, issued a report last week saying U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are sometimes conducted without legal justification and may amount to war crimes. It called on the Obama administration to investigate any potential unlawful killings.