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 was in disarray after Mehsud was killed in a CIA missile strike 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 United States 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.
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.
Baitullah Mehsud "got the wounds in a drone strike, and he was martyred two days ago," Hakimullah Mehsud said, a claim Rehman later repeated.
Baitullah Mehsud and his network were suspected in dozens of suicide attacks, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.