Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Saturday, 8 August 2009 00:40 UK

Pakistan demands Taliban evidence

Rehman Malik (7 August 2009)

Pakistan's interior minister has challenged the Taliban to prove their leaders are still alive, after reports that two of them have been killed.

Rehman Malik told the BBC officials had non-physical evidence that the top commander, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US missile attack on Wednesday.

He said intelligence suggested a shoot-out later broke out between Mehsud's potential successors in which one died.

The Taliban has accused the interior ministry of making up the incident.

However, the militant group's spokesmen were also unable to offer any physical evidence to disprove the government's claims.

'Credible information'

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Malik denied the allegation that the Pakistani security forces had no evidence proving that Mehsud was killed along with one of his wives in a strike on his father-in-law's house in the Zangarha area, north-east of Ladha, on Wednesday.

Taleban commander Hakimullah Mehsud
The news regarding our respected chief is propaganda by our enemies
Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud

"The day before yesterday, there was credible information coming from inside the area that Baitullah Mehsud had been killed," the minister said.

"This credible information had come right from sources based in South Waziristan, and particularly in Ladha."

But Mr Malik admitted that the government did not have "any material evidence so far confirming that Baitullah Mehsud is dead".

He said intelligence suggested that a "scuffle" had broken out between Mehsud's potential successors in Waziristan on Friday in which one of them, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed. Local media also said a shoot-out had happened.

"Obviously, it is not a story made up by us. This fight must have happened because of the succession," he added.

Mr Malik said Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, the other leader allegedly involved in the shootout, had long been hostile towards each other.

"They had been fighting in the past and we have information that there has been enmity between Waliur and Hakimullah since they were fighting together in Kurram valley," he said. "Hakimullah was replaced by Baitullah Mehsud with Waliur."

On Saturday morning, however, Hakimullah Mehsud told the BBC by telephone that reports of Mehsud's death were "ridiculous".

"The news regarding our respected chief is propaganda by our enemies," he said.

Baitullah Mehsud at a news conference in  South Waziristan, 24 May 2008
Baitullah Mehsud has been blamed for a series of suicide attacks in Pakistan

"We know what our enemies want to achieve - it's the joint policy of the ISI [Pakistani intelligence service] and FBI - they want our chief to come out in the open so they can achieve their target."

He said the Pakistani leader had decided to adopt the tactics of Osama bin Laden and stay silent. He said he would issue a message in the next few days.

But Mr Malik challenged the Taliban to prove their version of events.

"If Baitullah Mehsud is alive, or Hakimullah is alive, why don't they bring out a video. Every telephone has a camera on it. They can just get one out and show people that they are alive. I challenge them."

Believed to command as many as 20,000 pro-Taliban militants, Mehsud came to worldwide attention in the aftermath of the 2007 Red Mosque siege in Islamabad - in which the security forces confronted and forcibly ejected militant students loyal to him.

He has been blamed by both Pakistan and the US for a series of suicide bomb attacks in the country, as well as suicide attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.

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