Top militant in Pakistan killed by suspected US missile drone

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pakistani authorities have said that a suspected US drone attack along the Afghan border is believed to have killed an Uzbek militant leader with links to al-Qaida.

Pakistani intelligence officials say a US missile strike in South Waziristan in late August wounded Tahir Yuldashev and that he reportedly died a few days later.

Yuldashev was the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). He began fighting in the 1990s to topple Uzbekistan's government.

A Taliban spokesman has denied the report of Yuldashev's death. The Taliban gave him refuge in northern Afghanistan, but after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, analysts believe Yuldashev and his fighters fled east into Pakistan's tribal regions.

Yuldashev had been involved in insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, allegedly with the goal of creating an Islamist state across Central Asia.

Security analyst Khalid Aziz told Voice of America that if authorities are able to confirm Yuldashev's death, this would be a major blow to the militants operating in Pakistan's tribal regions.

Aziz says the power vacuum left by Yuldashev's death would provide a good opportunity to strike at his men and those of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, whose stronghold is believed to be in South Waziristan.

"For the last two months, there has been a blockade of this territory and obviously the Mehsouds are feeling the pinch," said Khalid Aziz.

The Pakistani military has already seen success in its prior campaign in and around Swat Valley targeting militants. But Aziz says he expects the military to change its strategy in the mountainous and isolated region of South Waziristan.

"We are going to see the first snowfall in that region, and it becomes even more difficult to fight there," he said. "So one foresees counter-terrorist operations rather than large-scale military operations as in Swat."

He says that type of strategy would drain the militants of their resources and put the military in a better position to respond to any threats that might arise elsewhere in the country.

The government insists it is not launching any major operation in South Waziristan at the moment. But UN officials say about 80,000 civilians have fled the tribal area in anticipation of a new military offensive.

The IMU is a militant group that was formed in 1998. It was almost completely destroyed when fighting with the Taliban against US forces in Afghanistan in 2001, but has since appeared to be regaining strength, having opened training camps in Waziristan.