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Pakistani Taliban appoint hard-liner as new leader

‘Mullah Radio’ is not supportive of peace talks

LONDON — In a surprise choice that bodes poorly for proposed peace talks, the Pakistani Taliban on Thursday appointed as their new leader the hard-line commander responsible for last year’s attack on Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani education activist.

The Taliban’s governing council chose Mullah Fazlullah, the head of a Pakistani faction in the northwestern Swat Valley, Taliban officials told reporters. Fazlullah is best known for hard-line radio broadcasts — in which he has called for public beatings and executions and denounced polio vaccinations, among other topics — that have earned him the nickname “Mullah Radio” in some circles.

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Celebratory gunfire erupted on the streets of North Waziristan, the tribal district that is Pakistan’s main militant hub, after the announcement was made. But the news was likely to be received with less enthusiasm by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.

Furious government officials criticized the United States’ killing of the previous Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike last Friday, saying that Mehsud had been on the verge of starting peace talks that could end seven years of bloodshed in Pakistan’s major cities.

Fazlullah, who reneged on a major peace deal with the authorities in 2009, offers dimmer hopes for talks. On Thursday, his spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said there would be “no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations.”

Shahid warned that the Taliban were planning retaliatory attacks against the federal government in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. He said Sharif had “bargained and sold out Hakimullah to the Americans.”

Fazlullah has been a primary enemy of the Pakistan military since he escaped the army’s toughest anti-Taliban offensive in recent years. Thousands of soldiers swept Swat in 2009 after the failure of a peace deal with the provincial government, killing or capturing many militants. But Fazlullah slipped through the dragnet and fled across the border into Afghanistan.

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Since then he is believed to have been hiding in Kunar and Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan, using the remote mountains as a base to mount attacks inside Pakistan, including the attempted killing of Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in October 2012.

Fazlullah claimed a major military target in September when his fighters killed a two-star army general in Dir district, near the Afghan border, in September.

Fazlullah was chosen by the Taliban shura, or governing council, after almost a week of deliberations in North Waziristan, the main militant hub in Pakistan. He was not the favored candidate because he does not hail from the Mehsud tribe, which has dominated the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban for years.

The ranks of the Mehsud leadership, however, have been thinned by the CIA drone campaign. US strikes in North and South Waziristan killed both Hakimullah and his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who died in 2009.

A former security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Fazlullah had been chosen to avert a rift between rival Mehsud factions inside the Taliban.

The Taliban also appointed Khalid Haqqani, a little-known commander from a rural district near Peshawar, as the deputy commander, effectively signaling a shift in the Taliban leadership from the tribal belt to neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

“This changes the entire equation,” said one senior government official in Peshawar.

Fazlullah, believed to be in his late 30s, offers the Taliban the opportunity of a possible new direction, led by a figure with a reputation for charisma, ruthlessness, and an instinct for publicity.

Fazlullah, from a poor family, started his adult life as the operator of a chair lift that spanned the river Swat. He rose to public prominence in 2007 by riding into Swat on a white horse, then setting up a pirate radio station that broadcast jihadist propaganda across the valley. Soon afterward, his armed fighters displaced the civil government.

In Swat, the Taliban instituted an authoritarian and often cruel rule that mandated public floggings, executions, and the closure of girls’ schools.

The provincial and federal governments’ struggled to respond to Fazlullah’s swagger, signing two peace deals with his father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad, in a bid to reestablish peace in the valley.

But those compromises quickly foundered — there was outrage across Pakistan over a video that showed Taliban fighters flogging a teenage girl in Swat — and by summer 2009, the army had moved in.

Since then, the Swat Taliban have been reduced to hit-and-run attacks, while the army has been accused by human rights groups of carrying out summary executions of suspected militants.

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