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Taliban choosing successor to leader

by By DECLAN WALSH, ISMAIL KHAN and SALMAN MASOOD, New York Times News Service on November 03, 2013 2:10 AM

LONDON — Pakistani Taliban commanders met Saturday to choose a successor to Hakimullah Mehsud, their leader who was killed Friday in a U.S. drone strike, as mainstream political leaders stepped up their criticism of the United States and vowed to press ahead with peace talks.

Pakistani officials said the Taliban shura, or governing council, had started to gather at a mosque in Miram Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, on Friday night. Early Saturday, the Taliban buried Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, and six others in Danday Darpakhel, the village where they were killed.

Officials said Mehsud’s body had been damaged beyond recognition, after several missiles hit the vehicle in which he was traveling as it entered a compound in the village on Friday.

Four candidates are thought to be in the running to replace Mehsud in an opaque process rived with tribal rivalry and personality-driven tensions. The favorite, Pakistani officials and militants said, is Khan Said, a commander who had been a rival to Mehsud and was thought to have the support of powerful factions, including the Haqqani network. Said is commonly known by the nom de guerre Sajna, which means beloved.

Speaking by telephone, a Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, said a winner would be decided “within a few days.”

Mehsud’s death represented another success against the Pakistani Taliban for the CIA, which killed his deputy, Wali ur-Rehman, in May. To the Obama administration, the killing of a high-profile enemy offered a welcome diversion from a growing debate in the United States over civilian casualties from drone strikes.

But in Pakistan, news of the U.S. attack was met with anger, highlighting how, despite their technological prowess and laser-guided precision, drone strikes can have messy aftereffects.

In Miram Shah, defiant tribesmen opened fire with AK-47s and other small arms on American drones hovering overhead. In the port city of Karachi, members of Mehsud’s tribe fired into the air in ethnic Pashtun areas.

Senior government ministers and opposition politicians united in condemning the drone strike, which they called an American effort to doom putative peace talks with the Taliban.

“It is the murder of peace in this region,” said the interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

The government summoned the U.S. ambassador, Richard G. Olson, and according to Khan, warned him: “Ambassador, take this government seriously. If drone attacks don’t cease there will be a standoff.”

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