Islamabad : The death of Abdullah Mahsud is the high point so far in Pakistan's six-year war against terror. President Pervez Musharraf had publicly declared that he would personally shoot Mahsud dead if he ever came across the Taliban commander.
A top militant leader commanding pro-Taliban fighters in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, Mahsud killed himself Tuesday in south-western Balochistan province after security forces had laid siege around his hideout in the town of Zhob.
His elimination should win approval from the Bush administration that has this week threatened to launch its anti-terror attacks within Pakistan, something Islamabad has stoutly opposed as an attack on its territorial integrity.
The tightrope walk along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has had frequent violent fallouts with the Taliban – both Afghan and Pakistani – and foreign mercenaries being fired upon while crossing the border.
For the US and NATO, who have mounted a major summer offensive in neighbouring Afghanistan, Mahsud's death should be a source of satisfaction after they succeeded in killing Mullah Dadullah two months ago.
That Mahsud was surrounded, not in North-West Frontier Province, or the tribal no-man's land in the north, but at Zhob in Balochistan, underlines the rising power of the Pakistani Taliban in this province, where local tribes are engaged in a movement demanding greater autonomy and share of resources from Islamabad.
Pointing to Balochistan being the gateway for the militants, The News said Wednesday that Mahsud had reportedly spent several months in Afghanistan's Helmand province and had stopped over in Zhob before entering his home base in the neighbouring south Waziristan tribal agency.
Pakistan's veteran Afghanistan-watcher Rahimullah Yusufzai, who had known and met Mahsud, said his was "a life devoted to violence".
The 32-year-old Mahsud had earned President Musharraf's ire and that of a large number of Pakistanis when he ordered the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers, Wang Peng and Wang Ende, in October 2004.
The former was killed in a rescue mission by Pakistan Army commandos on October 14, 2005 in which the five kidnappers were eliminated and Ende was rescued.
The incident prompted over 100 Chinese engineers and workers to abandon the Gomal Zam Dam project and return home.
The much-delayed project, sited partly in south Waziristan tribal agency and Tank district, was further delayed and remains incomplete.
Mahsud, enigmatic and unpredictable at times, didn't repent kidnapping of the Chinese engineers. He used to defend his action by arguing that this was his way of "embarrassing" Musharraf's government and forcing it to stop military operations in south Waziristan.
"I am not against the Chinese people and I realise that China is Pakistan's best friend. But desperate people do desperate things and that is the reason I ordered the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers," he told Yusufzai in an interview in 2004.
Mahsud was born in Nano village in Sarwakai tehsil in south Waziristan. His real name was Noor Alam but he preferred being known as Abdullah. He belonged to the Mahsud tribe and some of his family members, including his brother Major Asghar and brother-in-law Colonel Yaqoob Mahsud, had served in the Pakistan Army.
Unlike most Taliban whose education was confined to religious seminaries, Mahsud had received both religious and college education. He studied at the Government Commerce College in Peshawar before attending a seminary, where he befriended Afghan Taliban and later joined their movement in Afghanistan. He spoke Pashto, Dari, Urdu and some English.
As a youth, he fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. He lost his leg in a landmine explosion a few days before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in September 1996. It didn't dampen his enthusiasm as a fighter and he got himself an artificial leg later, says Yusufzai.
Mahsud surrendered along with several thousand Taliban fighters in December 2001. The Americans sent him to the specially built US prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, from where he was released after 25 months.
Yusufzai says that Mahsud, unknown even in his native area till then, shot to fame after his stint in the American jail. His long hair and daredevil nature made him a colourful and interesting character.
"Stories were told as to how Abdullah Mahsud rides a camel or horse to visit his fighters in his mountain abode. He started making speeches in mosques and madrassas preaching jehad and exhorting the young people to fight against the US and its allies."
In his 2004 interview, Mahsud said he led his fighters by example – taking risks and surviving in tough conditions. He said he didn't want to fight the Pakistan Army but was constrained to do so as it was being used to implement US policies.