PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suspected U.S. drone strike today killed the No. 2 commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani intelligence officials said, although the militant group denied he was killed.
If confirmed, the death of Waliur Rehman would be a strong blow to the militant group responsible for hundreds of bombings and shootings across Pakistan.
Officials said the strike, in the country’s tribal areas, killed a total of four people.
Two of the officials said their informants in the field saw Rehman’s body while a third said intelligence authorities had intercepted communications between militants saying Rehman was killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, however, denied the reports.
“This appears to me to be false news. I don’t have any such information,” said Ahsanullah Ahsan, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Most of North Waziristan is under militant control, and journalists do not have access to the area, making it difficult to independently confirm such incidents.
The strike was the first since Pakistan’s landmark elections on May 11 in which the American drone program was a hotly debated topic.
It was also the first strike in Pakistan since President Barack Obama’s speech last Thursday during which he discussed more restrictive rules he was implementing on the use of the controversial drones in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.
The tribal region in northwestern Pakistan is home to a variety of local and Afghan militant outfits, including al-Qaida-linked fighters.
The U.S. has often criticized Pakistan, saying it does not vigorously target militants in these areas who then attack American troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials say their military is already overtaxed by fighting militants in both the tribal regions and in the southwestern province of Baluchistan and that the casualties they’ve already incurred have not been properly recognized.
Washington’s drone program is extremely unpopular in Pakistan, although the number of strikes has dropped significantly since the height of the program in 2010.
The strikes usually target al-Qaida-linked insurgents or other militants who fight in Afghan-istan against NATO, although some strikes have killed militants who are at war with the Pakistani government.
The Pakistani Taliban has been battling government forces for years in a bid to push them from the tribal regions, cut Pakistan’s ties with the U.S. and eventually establish their brand of hardline Islam across Pakistan.
The U.S. government in 2010 offered $5 million for information leading to Rehman under their “Rewards for Justice” program.
While Rehman was mostly known for his activities in Pakistan, the U.S. said in its announcement that he also participated in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO personnel.
Rehman was wanted in connection with his involvement in an attack on a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009 that killed seven Americans, the U.S. said.
Shahzad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press reporter Rebecca Santana in Islamabad also contributed to this report.