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Hardline cleric new Pakistan Taliban leader

07 November 2013, 19:31

Miranshah - The Pakistani Taliban on Thursday chose a hardline cleric suspected of links to the attack on Malala Yousafzai as their new chief, following the death of the previous leader in a US drone strike.

Maulana Fazlullah, elected by the Taliban ruling council, led the militants' brutal two-year rule in Pakistan's northwest valley of Swat in 2007-2009 before a military operation retook the area.

He takes over leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike last Friday.

The announcement was made by TTP caretaker leader Asmatullah Shaheen at a press conference attended by AFP at an undisclosed location in northwest Pakistan.

"I congratulate all the Muslim brothers that Maulana Fazlullah has been elected as the new chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan," Shaheen said.

"The supreme shura has also elected Sheikh Khalid Haqqani as the deputy chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan."

There was heavy gunfire in celebration in Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area.

Pakistani intelligence believes Fazlullah has links to the attempt to kill schoolgirl education activist Malala in Swat in October 2012, an attack which was claimed by the TTP.

The killing of Mehsud on Friday came as government representatives prepared to meet the TTP with a view to opening peace talks.

It triggered an angry response from Islamabad, with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar accusing Washington of sabotaging peace efforts.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was more measured, but said his government was committed to seeking peace through dialogue and stressing that an end to bloodshed could not be achieved "by unleashing senseless force".

Sharif came to power in May partly on a pledge to hold talks to try to end the TTP's bloody insurgency that has fuelled instability in the nuclear-armed nation.

In September he won the backing of major political parties to begin overtures to the Taliban.

Imtiaz Gul, an author and expert on militancy in Pakistan, warned the choice of such an uncompromising candidate would spell problems for the embryonic peace process - and a bloodier campaign from the TTP.

"It means they are not serious about any talks with the government," Gul told AFP.

"TTP will be more brutal now."

During Fazlullah's rule in Swat, the Taliban enforced a rigorous version of Islamic law, publicly beheading and flogging wrongdoers and burning schools.

Fazlullah fled when the army swept in to retake Swat and is believed to have been in eastern Afghanistan, though Pakistan says he has directed attacks on its soil from across the border.

The TTP, an umbrella organisation grouping numerous militant factions, has killed thousands of soldiers, police and civilians since 2007 in its campaign against the Pakistani state.



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