ISLAMABAD — Finding and killing Pakistan's most-wanted militant was a difficult task. Proving his death may be even harder.
Most indicators point to Baitullah Mehsud's death in a CIA missile strike last week, and the U.S. government says it's "90 percent" sure of it.
But the Pakistani and U.S. governments will have a tough time confirming the death because the Taliban control the South Waziristan region, a remote, mountainous tribal area where the drone-fired missile reportedly destroyed the home of Mehsud's father-in-law. While officials initially talked of sending a team to collect DNA from the site, that possibility now looks increasingly dim.
"At the moment, it is inaccessible," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, said Tuesday, adding that a planned ground operation in South Waziristan is still pending while aerial assaults soften up the area by bombing militant targets.
In the absence of a body, the Taliban and the Pakistani government have been waging competing propaganda campaigns over the state of the militants' leadership.
Pakistani officials and a rival militant commander at one point suggested that not only was Mehsud dead, but also his two top deputies — supposedly slain in a shootout over succession. Both deputies later telephoned reporters. Mehsud, so far, has not made an attempt to contact the media.
The Taliban could prove their case by producing a video of Mehsud. Taliban commanders were promised that Mehsud would address them by wireless radio Sunday night; instead, his two deputies came on the air urging followers not to be discouraged, a militant commander told the Associated Press.
A posting on an international jihadist Web site recently suggests that doubts may be spreading even among hard-line Islamists.
The message, translated by the SITE institute that monitors extremist traffic, proclaims "Baitullah Mehsud is Alive in Pakistan!" But it also offers a carefully worded appeal for proof.
The best evidence of Mehsud's demise may eventually come with the emergence of a new leader of his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, said political analyst Mohammed Amir Rana.