WASHINGTON — Without ever firing a shot at Americans, Baitullah Mehsud had become something of an obsession for the CIA.
Over 18 months, the agency tried three times to kill the stout, 5-foot-2-inch commander of the Pakistani Taliban, while offering a $5 million bounty for his death or capture.
The agency apparently succeeded this week, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials said, when a missile launched by a CIA-operated unmanned aircraft homed in on the second-floor balcony of a villa in northwestern Pakistan where the reclusive, diabetic Mehsud was getting medical treatment.
According to Pakistani and U.S. officials, as well as Taliban fighters reached by telephone Friday, Mehsud was staying at a house owned by his father-in-law in Zanghra, a village in the lawless border region of South Waziristan.
Mehsud had summoned a local medic for help and was undergoing intravenous treatment for dehydration and stomach problems when the missile tore into the building, the sources said. Mehsud, his second wife and several bodyguards were killed, they said.
Taliban members confirmed Friday that Mehsud had been killed and was buried shortly afterward.
"Baitullah is no more with us," one Taliban fighter said.
Officials said the intelligence about Mehsud's whereabouts had come partly from informants inside the Mehsud network who had been bought off by Pakistani spies.
The blast is thought to have eliminated a terrorist who was suspected to be behind the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and who was at the top of Pakistan's most-wanted list.
Although Mehsud had been regarded primarily as a threat to that country, he was also a central figure in a network of South Asian and international terrorist groups whose operations had become increasingly coordinated in recent months.
The apparently successful hit — U.S. officials acknowledged that conclusive proof may be impossible unless a body is recovered — was regarded by U.S. and Pakistani analysts as a devastating setback for the coalition of 13 Pakistani Taliban factions that Mehsud had commanded, a confederation of tribally based groups linked to a half-dozen major suicide bombings in Pakistan in recent months.
Neither the CIA nor the Obama administration has publicly confirmed the agency's role in the airstrike.
The news of Mehsud's apparent death was widely welcomed in Pakistan.
"Pakistani and American officials are working closely to deal with a menace they both recognize," Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview. "If indeed the reports about Mehsud being killed are fully confirmed, this will be one of many events that bear evidence to the usefulness of Pakistani-U.S. cooperation."