Officials: Gunmen kill leader in Pakistani Taliban

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BANNU, Pakistan (AP) — Gunmen killed a top leader of the Pakistani Taliban in a tribal region near Afghan border on Monday, intelligence officials and militant commanders said.

Asmatullah Shaheen Bitani and three aides died in a shooting in Darga Mandi area of North Waziristan, the four officials and two militants said.

Bitani’s cousin also confirmed his death, saying that his family was preparing for a funeral and burial.

The officials said it was not clear whether the killing was militant infighting, or if Pakistani security forces killed him, or if Bitani was shot by someone who wanted the government bounty of 10 million rupees ($95,000) on him.

No one has claimed responsibility. The militant group has responded yet with any statement, which they usually make after such high profile killings. All officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the media on record.

Bitani, who sat on the Pakistani Taliban’s executive council, was appointed interim chief of the militant group after a suspected U.S. drone strike killed his former chief Hakimullah Mehsud last year.

He has since been replaced by another leader, Mullah Fazlullah, who was chosen by the executive council.

The Pakistani Taliban are a loose network of militant groups. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died in their war to overthrow the government and enforce their own harsh brand of Islamic Shariah law.

North Waziristan is home to a mix of local and foreign al-Qaida linked militant groups. Some militants focus their attacks only against forces from the U.S.-led international across the border in Afghanistan, where they are fighting the Afghan branch of the Taliban.

Afghan warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur heads one of these groups. He has a non-aggression treaty with Pakistani government. He controls the Darga Mandi area where Bitani was killed.

Pakistan’s government recently started peace talks with the Taliban, but negotiations were suspended after the killing of 23 soldiers by a faction of the militant group, along with a militant-claimed bombing in southern port city of Karachi that killed 13 police officers.

Ever since, Pakistani air force jets have been pounding militants’ hideouts in tribal regions near the Afghan border.

In the latest strikes, the air force hit militants’ compounds and a bomb-making factory in the Tirah valley in Khyber tribal region, an army and an intelligence official said late Sunday. They claimed that at least 28 militants were killed.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media on record.

There was no way to independently confirm the report. The remote tribal area is off limits to journalists.

Also Monday, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest blew himself up near a security checkpoint close to the residence of Iranian Consul General in northwestern city of Peshawar, said Nasir Durrani, the provincial police chief, killing two Pakistani security guards.

Another senior police officer, Muhammad Faisal, said another nine guards were wounded.

Durrani said the suicide attacker got of a car and moved toward a checkpoint outside the Iranian diplomat’s residence but was challenged by the guard and blew himself up.

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Associated Press Writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.

Associated Press

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