Hakimullah Mehsud's farmhouse was no refuge from US drone strike

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 10:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 4:41am

The marble floors gleam inside the hidden compound where Pakistan's Taliban chief died on Friday. There are lush green lawns and a towering minaret.

The home of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who died in a US drone strike, was no grubby mountain cave.

Mehsud spent his days flitting around Pakistan's rugged tribal areas to avoid the attentions of US drones. But his family, including two wives, had the use of an eight-roomed farmhouse set amid lawns and orchards laden with apples, oranges, grapes and pomegranates.

The compound in Dande Darpa Khel village, five kilometres north of Miran Shah, was adorned with a tall minaret - purely for decorative purposes.

Militant sources said the property in the North Waziristan tribal area was bought for Mehsud nearly a year ago for US$120,000 - a huge sum by Pakistani standards - by close aide Latif Mehsud, who was captured by the US in Afghanistan last month.

The compound was seen several times by an Agence France-Presse journalist when the property's previous owner, a wealthy landowner, lived there.

With the Pakistan army headquarters for restive North Waziristan just a kilometre away, locals thought of Mehsud's estate as the "safest" place in a dangerous area.

Its proximity to a major military base recalls the hideout of Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad, on the doorstep of Pakistan's elite military academy.

"I saw a convoy of vehicles two or three times in this street but I never thought Hakimullah would have been living here. It was the safest place for us before this strike," says local shopkeeper Akhter Khan.

This illusion of safety was shattered on Friday when a US drone fired at least two missiles at Mehsud's vehicle as it idled at the compound gate waiting to enter. The hit killed the Pakistani Taliban chief and four cadres.

The area around Dande Darpa Khel is known as a hub for the Haqqani network, a militant faction blamed for some of the most high-profile attacks in Afghanistan in recent years.

Many residents fled the area during the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan, returning after the US-led invasion.

Samiullah Wazir, a shopkeeper in the area, says he would regularly see a convoy of four or five SUVs with blacked-out windows leave the compound early in the morning and return after sunset.

"We thought that somebody very important must be living in this house," Wazir says. "One day, I saw a man wearing a white shawl entering the house and I thought he looked like Hakimullah, but I thought 'How can he live here because he could be easily hit by a drone strike?'"

But Hakimullah it was, and on Friday he returned to his compound for the final time.

"We were closing the shop when his vehicle came and was about to enter the house when a missile struck it," Wazir says.

"Moments later, an army of Taliban came and they cordoned off the area."