ISLAMABAD – A Taliban faction leader who was seen as the chief rival to the militant group's Pakistani head was fatally shot Tuesday, reportedly by one of his own guards.
The attack on Qari Zainuddin appeared to be a sign that divisions within the Taliban have broken into the open as they come under military assault. The army is clearing out militants from the Swat Valley and has been pounding strongholds of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in the South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan in apparent preparation for a major offensive.
Also Tuesday, suspected U.S. missiles hit a suspected Taliban training center, then more missiles hit an evening funeral procession for some of those killed in the earlier strikes, officials and witnesses said. Nine people were killed and several more wounded.
At least seven people were killed when three suspected U.S. missiles hit the training center in the village of Najmarai in the Makeen area of South Waziristan, said two intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media.
Hours later, four more missiles blasted into a funeral procession for some of those killed in the earlier strike, killing two.
"I saw three drones, they dropped bombs," said Sohail Mehsud, a resident of Makeen, which is the home district of Baitullah Mehsud. "The missiles did not hit the procession precisely. Had it been the case, it would have a big loss."
Dozens of such strikes have been carried out in the tribal regions over the last year. U.S. officials concede they have been using drone-fired missiles to target suspected militants in Pakistan, but they do not comment on individual strikes.
Zainuddin was gunned down in the nearby town of Dera Ismail Khan. He had emerged as Mehsud's chief rival and had criticized the militant leader over attacks that killed civilians.
Dr. Mahmood Khan Bitani told The Associated Press that he pronounced Zainuddin dead on arrival at a local hospital with gunshot wounds to the head and chest.
Baz Mohammad, an aide to the militant leader who also was wounded, said a guard barged into a room at Zainuddin's compound after morning prayers and opened fire. He accused Mehsud of being behind the attack.
"It was definitely Baitullah's man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job," Mohammad told AP, vowing to avenge the death.
He later filed a criminal complaint with police, alleging the shooting was carried out at Mehsud's behest.
A spokesman for Mehsud could not immediately be reached to respond to the accusation.
Bahawal Khan, the area police official, confirmed the slaying, as did Sher Mohammad, an uncle of Zainuddin. Aides said the guard had gotten closer to Zainuddin about four months ago. He fled after the attack in a waiting car, they said.
Mahmood Shah, a former top security official, said the slaying sends a strong message to the government that they need to launch a strong, comprehensive operation to eliminate Mehsud, described as the center of gravity for much of the terrorist activity in Pakistan. Instead, Shah said, they have relied on "local efforts" by Mehsud's opponents like Zainuddin.
"Baitullah Mehsud has overcome all tribal dynamics. He has resources, funding and a fighting force to strike anywhere in Pakistan," Shah said, calling him a front man for al-Qaida. "You simply can't eliminate him through local efforts; instead, you need a major force."
Zainuddin was estimated to have about 3,000 armed followers in Dera Ismail Khan and nearby Tank. Earlier this month, he denounced Mehsud for recent attacks that have killed civilians — apparently launched in retaliation for the army offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley.
"Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism," Zainuddin told the AP after a mosque suicide bombing attack, blamed on Mehsud, killed 33 people. "Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism."
Zainuddin's motive for criticizing Mehsud was not clear, but there was speculation that he was trying to portray himself as a more moderate alternative to the Taliban leader, although there appeared to be little or no differences between the two over fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Daily bombing runs and artillery barrages have been softening up militant targets in South Waziristan for about a week and ground troops have moved into position, the military says, though it says the main offensive has not yet started.
Meanwhile, five suspected aides of Mehsud were arrested Tuesday in the southern city of Karachi after an encounter with police, while six others escaped, police official Raja Omar Khatab said. The men are accused of involvement in robberies, kidnappings for ransom and other criminal activity to generate funds for Mehsud, Khatab said.