Rival Taliban leaders unite as US widens Pakistan attacks

Pakistan's top three Taliban commanders have set aside their rivalries and decided to cooperate as the US expands its covert drone attacks against militants on Pakistani soil, media reports said on Saturday, dpa reported.

Baitullah Mehsud, the head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of more than a dozen militant organizations in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal region and neighbouring North West Frontier Province, held a meeting with his rival commanders Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahader last week, it has emerged.

A close aide of Nazir told English-language daily The News that the three commanders promised to cooperate with each other in the future against their common enemies, namely Pakistan and United States.

"I am extremely excited today. I even danced and fired shots in the air as we succeeded in removing misunderstandings created by the Pakistan government," he told the newspaper over phone.

The three militant leaders, who have previously fought each other, jointly lead thousands of Taliban fighters in Pakistan's tribal region.

The purported alliance came as the New York Times reported that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has broadened its battle against militants within Pakistan.

The American newspaper claimed that a recent attack by unmanned drones targeted Mehsud and his followers. They had apparently previously been spared because they had "played less of a direct role in attacks on American troops" in Afghanistan.

Mehsud is suspected of ordering dozens of attacks inside Pakistan over the last two years, including the one that killed former prime minister and wife of current President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto.

By contrast, the other two Taliban leaders, Bahader and Nazir, are believed to focus their resources solely on launching cross border attacks on US-led international forces in Afghanistan.

Bahader, who is the Taliban chief in North Waziristan, signed a peace accord with the government on February 17, 2008 to cease attacks on security forces and government installations.

Nazir led an offensive against al-Qaeda-linked Uzbek fighters to expel them from his area in South Waziristan, a stronghold of Mehsud.

The US drones last week fired rockets at camps run by Mehsud's network, the New York Times reported, saying further that a Saturday strike was aimed specifically at Mehsud, but he was not killed.

The strikes are a sign that new US President Barack Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, the Bush administration policy of using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, the New York Times said.

"This might have compelled Mr Mehsud to reconcile with Mr Bahader and Mr Nazir who are already enraged over increased US drone attacks which they believe are carried out with the support of Islamabad government," said Pakistani defence analyst Mahmood Shah.

"The development might help Afghan Taliban in their offensive against NATO troops in the coming spring because previously reluctant Mehsud will be able to dispatch more men and arms to Afghanistan under the new alliance," he added.

The CIA have carried out more than 30 drone attacks since September to eliminate dozens of al-Qaeda second-tier operatives, including Abu Jihad al-Masri and Usama al-Kini, believed to have helped the 1998 American Embassy bombings in East Africa and last year's bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

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