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Pakistani Taliban Leader Dead in US Drone Strike

Members of the Pakistani Taliban are meeting to consider naming a replacement for the group's leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, hours after he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in a northwest Pakistan tribal area.

Pakistani and U.S. officials say Mehsud and three others were killed Friday when four missiles from a CIA-operated drone struck his compound in North Waziristan.

Saturday drones still hovered over the area, where Mehsud's funeral was to take place. Witnesses said some of his supporters fired light weapons in anger at the remote-controlled planes.

The 34-year-old leader had taken over the group in 2009 when its previous head was killed, also by a drone strike.

The U.S. had a $5 million bounty on Mehsud. He is accused of involvement in a deadly suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan in 2009 and a failed bombing of New York's Times Square in 2010.

Mehsud's cousin, uncle and a bodyguard, were also reported killed in the CIA attack on the compound, which sources confirmed to VOA was used by the Taliban leader.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, said the White House cannot confirm Mehsud's death, but said it would be a "serious loss" for the Pakistani Taliban.

While the strike could weaken the Taliban, it could also complicate the Islamabad government's peace talks with the militant group, which is blamed for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis in recent years.

Just hours before the strike, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced his government had begun negotiations with the Taliban, though he offered few other details.

It is unclear whether those efforts will be affected, but Taliban officials have promised revenge attacks for Mehsud's death.

The news received a mixed response elsewhere in Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes are deeply unpopular. Islamabad's foreign ministry condemned the attack, though this was before reports emerged of Mehsud's death.

Pakistani leaders say they strongly oppose the drone strikes, but some critics believe the operations aimed at suspected al-Qaida and Taliban operatives are part of a secret agreement under which Pakistan tacitly approves the U.S. strikes.

This was the second drone strike following Prime Minister Sharif's visit to the U.S. last month, when he pushed for an end to the attacks. Most Pakistanis consider the drone strikes to be a violation of the country's sovereignty.

Though U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have slowed in recent months, the White House has shown few signs it is willing to stop the attacks, which have killed several high-ranking militants in recent years.

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