RFE/RL, October 02, 2009
Pakistani security officials have reportedly claimed that the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Tohir Yuldash, was killed in a late-August missile strike.
The officials made the remarks to domestic and international media on condition of anonymity.
Pakistani army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that his forces have received information about Yuldash's death but that "there is no credible evidence or anyone [who is] a witness."
The death of the head of the IMU, an extremist militant group active in Central Asian countries that has ties to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, would be a significant development in the effort to counter militancy in South and Central Asia.
The anonymous officials claimed that Yuldash died in Pakistan's remote western South Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border, where he has been based for years.
His host and key ally, leader of the Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud, was confirmed killed in a U.S. drone strike in the region on August 5.
Sailab Mehsud, a Pashtun journalist from South Waziristan, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that local sources and intelligence reports say Yuldash was badly wounded in a missile attack in the village of Kanigurum in South Waziristan on August 27.
Citing those reports, Mehud suggests that several of Yuldash's associates and Taliban commanders were also killed or injured.
"The intelligence reports also state that along with Tahi Yuldash [local Taliban commanders] Noor Islam, Abdullah and another person were injured in that attack. Youldash was reported to have suffered massive injuries and had lost an arm and a leg in this attack," Mehsud says.
"But a [top Pakistani] Taliban leader, Qari Hussain, however, insists that such reports are not true."
Yuldash has been reported killed on a number of previous occasions, but subsequent audio or video statements generally emerged to discount those claims. Amid reports of his demise that began to leak out in recent weeks, however, Yuldash did not issue messages he usually delivers at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (in late August this year) or its end marked by the Eid-al-Fitr celebration (in late September).
An unidentified caller, claiming to be one of Yuldash's bodyguards, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on September 28 that Yuldash was killed along with his top associates.
He further claimed that the IMU was trying to keep Yuldash's death secret and that an ethnic Tatar, Abdur Rakhman, had replaced him as the organization's leader.
Pakistani journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid was one of the first international correspondents to extensively report on the growth and evolution of the IMU.
Rashid tells RFE/RL that if the reports of his death are true, it would be a "big blow" to Central Asian Islamic militants.
Rashid describes Yuldash as a "charismatic figure" who has led the IMU since 2001, when the group's founder, Jumanboy Khojaev (nom de guerre: Juma Namangani), was killed in intense U.S. bombing northern Afghanistan. Yuldash reportedly led the surviving fighters' flight to Pakistan, where many are believed to remain.
"It is definitely a major success, for the Americans, for the Pakistanis and for the Uzbek governments. In fact, this very summer we have had a number of small suicide attacks and militant attacks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and it seemed at least that there was a revival of militancy in Central Asia emanating from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is, of course, based in the tribal areas of Pakistan," Rashid says.
"And couple that with the Afghan Taliban offensive in northern Afghanistan, which borders Central Asia, it seems that there was a growing focus on Central Asia by Al-Qaeda, by the Central Asian groups and by the Afghan Taliban."
But former Brigadier General Mehmood Shah, who used to head security affairs in Pakistan's troubled tribal areas, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Yuldash's death "will harm the Pakistani Taliban movement a lot."
But he says, Yuldash was not very active in organizing Islamist militancy in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. "There are others who are active on that front, he was only sitting here and making money while damaging Pakistan," Shah argues.
Based on his extensive contacts in the region, Shah suggests that news about Yuldash's death appears to be credible because earlier reports only suggested that he was injured.
Rashid predicts that Yuldash's death would undermine the "underground networks" that the IMU has been trying to establish across Central Asia over the past eight years.
Rashid also suggests that Central Asian governments' public and private responses to Yuldash's death will be very different.
"I think, privately the governments will be very, very pleased. But I think publicly, they don't want to admit that they have a militant problem," he says, adding that the Central Asian regimes would "publicly discount that Yuldash was ever a threat to Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan."
Tajik Defense and Interior Ministry officials tell RFE/RL that they have not yet received any official information about Yuldash's death and can therefore not comment.
Uzbek officials have also declined to comment.
RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan. RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah and RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Alisher Sidikov contributed reporting from Prague.