LONDON — A suspected US drone strike killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban early Wednesday, Pakistani officials and militants said, dealing a potentially serious blow to an insurgency that has killed thousands of people in Pakistan and encouraged Islamist attacks in the United States.
If confirmed, the strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt, along the Afghan border, would be the first since President Obama announced sweeping changes to the drone program last week, including new limits on who would be targeted and more transparency in reporting such strikes. But that map for use of such power seemed to be some distance down the road on Wednesday, as US officials refused to confirm the strike or any details for hours after the news was being reported in Pakistan.
It was unclear whether the Taliban deputy leader, Waliur Rehman, was considered to have posed a “continuing and imminent threat” to citizens of the United States — one of Obama’s guiding criteria for future drone strikes. But in the days since the president’s speech, US officials have asserted behind the scenes that the new standards would not apply to the CIA drone program in Pakistan as long as US troops remained in Afghanistan.
Rehman, who has long been thought to be the Pakistani Taliban’s main operations leader, has a $5 million US government bounty on his head and is accused of organizing attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. Although Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, would not confirm the strike during his briefing Wednesday afternoon, he emphasized a long list of US accusations against Rehman.
Inside Pakistan, Rehman’s death provoked a complex set of reactions. The Foreign Ministry quickly condemned the strike, while the incoming prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has vowed to restrict drone activity as part of a broader tightening of US relations.
Some analysts and conservative leaders speculated that Rehman’s death could make it harder for Pakistan to strike a deal with the Taliban, because he was seen as less extreme than the movement’s fugitive leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.
Two security officials, one speaking from the regional capital, Peshawar, said Rehman was among five people killed when missiles fired from a drone struck a house outside Miram Shah, the main town in the tribal district of North Waziristan.
A local resident, reached by phone, said that shortly after the strikes, three pickup trucks carrying fighters rushed to the site to retrieve bodies. Two Uzbek militants were also killed, Pakistani officials said.
A Taliban commander, speaking in a telephone interview on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Rehman was among the dead.
Inside the Taliban, Rehman was seen as a conciliatory figure, who helped mediate disputes with other factions and who was opposed to the indiscriminate attacks on civilians that have become the Taliban hallmark in recent years.
In addition to attacking US soldiers in Afghanistan, his group helped train Faisal Shahzad, the naturalized US citizen who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. Officials also accuse Rehman of helping plan an attack that killed seven Americans at a CIA outpost in the Afghan province of Khost in 2009. Among the dead was Harold Brown Jr. of Bolton, Mass.