PESHAWAR/MIRANSHAH - Unknown attackers on Monday shot dead a senior commander of the Pakistani Taliban who had a government bounty on his head, officials and TTP sources said, with the killing blamed on internal rivalries.
Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, who was believed to be in his mid-40s and was a former interim chief of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had a 10 million rupee ($95,000) bounty on his head since 2009.
According to our correspondent, Bhittani was ambushed in Dargah Mandi village near Miranshah, the main town in the troubled North Waziristan tribal district.
“Unknown attackers opened fire on Asmatullah Shaheen’s car. He along with three associates died on the spot,” a security official in Miranshah told on condition of anonymity.
A close relative of Shaheen said that in addition to those killed, two other people travelling in the car were critically wounded.The attackers fled in a separate vehicle, the security official said.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the killing, but a local security official blamed a rival militant group as despite his seniority, Shaheen was a highly controversial figure within the Pakistani Taliban.
Observers do not believe his death will have a major impact on the future of stalled peace talks with the government that began this month.
Shaheen was leader of the Bhittani tribe and also chairman of the Taliban’s supreme council (shura) for more than two years. He also served as the acting TTP chief after Hakimullah Mehsud’s death in a US drone strike on November 1. But a militant source close to Shaheen told that he was removed from the chairmanship of TTP shura in December after developing differences with several militant commanders.
The battle hardened commander was one of the top deputies of Baitullah Mehsud, predecessor of Hakimullah, and previously fought with the force of Haji Turkestan (a pro-government leader) multiple times. Considered a potential successor to Baitullah, Asmatullah wasn’t allowed to ascend the leadership mantle, as he hailed from a different tribe.
Shaheen gained notoriety after claiming responsibility for a suicide attack on a Shia procession in Karachi, which killed 43 people and wounded more than 100 in December 2009. An intelligence official in Peshawar said Shaheen was also wanted for masterminding other attacks on Pakistan troops that included suicide attacks.
He was considered as the lead figure of an attack on the Frontier Corps - Mullazai Fort in Tank, South Waziristan. In Dec 2011, his militants with highly sophisticated weaponry attacked the military bastion, killed an officer and kidnapped 23 other soldiers. Although seven soldiers managed to escape from the militants’ custody, the rest of the abductees were brutally tortured and murdered. The horrifically mutilated bodies – with 40 bullet holes each and signs of torture – were recovered from North Waziristan subsequently.
Security analysts said that the killing was the result of Shaheen’s several enmities. “Militant groups have fought against each other in the past and the killing of Asmatullah Shaheen is apparently because of those internal differences,” an analyst said.
Earlier this month Pakistan entered into talks with the Taliban aimed at ending their seven-year insurgency. But the militant group continued carrying out attacks on a near-daily basis. The dialogue was suspended after the insurgents claimed they had executed 23 kidnapped soldiers in a northwestern tribal region.
Since then the air force has been carrying out attacks in the volatile tribal regions which border Afghanistan, killing dozens. On Sunday, Pakistani fighter jets attacked suspected militant hideouts in tribal areas on the Afghan border. The army said they killed at least 38 insurgents in the third air strike in recent days. Due to the airstrikes of armed forces on the militant-infested areas near the Pak-Afghan border, the locals have started moving towards settled areas in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.