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ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR - The chief of the Pakistani Taliban was killed by a US drone strike on Friday, security sources and a senior Taliban commander said, in a major blow to the country's most feared militant group.
Hakimullah Mehsud was one of Pakistan's most wanted men with a $5 million US bounty on his head. He led an increasingly violent insurgency from a secret hideout in North Waziristan, the Taliban's mountainous stronghold on the Afghan border.
“We confirm with great sorrow that our esteemed leader was martyred in a drone attack,” a senior Taliban commander said.
Mehsud's funeral will be held on Saturday in Miranshah, the Taliban commander said - a high-profile event likely to stir tensions further in the already highly volatile region.
The death of a man whose name became synonymous with the escalating insurgency in the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Pakistani Taliban.
In May, a drone strike killed Mehsud's second-in-command, and one of his most trusted lieutenants was captured in Afghanistan last month.
The death also follows months of debate over potential peace talks between the Taliban and the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who won a landslide election victory in May, promising to quash the insurgency.
On Friday, several intelligence, army and Taliban sources across Pakistan confirmed Mehsud, believed to be in his mid-30s, had been killed in the drone strike in North Waziristan.
Mehsud took over the Pakistani Taliban in August 2009 after a drone strike killed the previous leader, his mentor. His Pakistani Taliban acts as an umbrella for various jihadist groups who are separate to but allied to the Afghan Taliban.
Four security officials confirmed his death to Reuters. His bodyguard and driver were also killed, they said.
“Among the dead, who are in large numbers, are Hakimullah's personal bodyguard Tariq Mehsud and his driver Abdullah Mehsud, two of his closest people,” said one intelligence source.
The government issued its usual statement denouncing the drone strike but did not comment on reports of Mehsud's death.
Drones fired four missiles at a compound in Danda Darpa Khel, a village about 5 km (3 miles) from the regional capital of Miranshah, killing at least four people, sources said.
Mehsud was killed after attending a gathering of 25 Taliban leaders gathering to discuss the government's offer of talks, they said.
The information could not be independently verified because journalists have no access to the affected areas.
The US had offered $5 million for Mehsud's capture after he appeared in a farewell video with the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees at a base in Afghanistan in 2009.
US prosecutors have charged him with involvement in the attack.
Although Mehsud's death will spark calls for revenge, it may make negotiations with the militants easier in the long-run, said Saifullah Mahsud, director of the Pakistani think-tank FATA Research Center.
“Hakimullah Mehsud was a very controversial figure and he had very tough demands,” he said. But the strike did not signal the end of the Pakistani Taliban, he said.
“It's a very decentralised organisation. They've lost leaders to drone strikes before.”