The elusive new chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, has returned to his homeland from a secret mountain hideout in neighbouring Afghanistan to lead the insurgency, militant and intelligence sources said on Tuesday.
Fazlullah, known for his hardline Islamist beliefs and rejection of peace talks with the Pakistani government, was named the leader after Hakimullah Mehsud, his predecessor, was killed in a US drone strike on Nov. 1.
Hakimullah's death set off a power struggle within the already deeply fractured insurgency, with Fazlullah's extended absence fuelling infighting among the Taliban.
On Monday, two Pakistani intelligence sources said Fazlullah had crossed the mountains into Pakistan a day earlier. "We have information that ... Fazlullah has entered the Pakistani tribal area along with 15 or 20 guards," said one source. Taliban sources confirmed he had reached tribal areas.
Fazlullah would be keen to end squabbling among the Taliban leadership and streamline what is essentially a chaotic organisation with weak central command. Another Pakistani intelligence source said that his escort included three high-profile Taliban commanders, Azam Waziristan, Mufti Abdul Rashid and Muftah Udin.
Nicknamed "Radio Mullah" for his fiery broadcasts in Pakistan's Swat valley, Fazlullah is best known for ordering the assassination of teenage female education activist Malala Yousafzai. Malala survived the shooting and now lives in Britain.
The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the government and impose Islamist rule in the nuclear-armed nation. Under Hakimullah, the insurgency appeared open to the idea of peace talks. Fazlullah ruled out any negotiations from the day of his appointment and promised a new campaign of shootings and bombings.
Born in 1976, Fazlullah gained prominence in 2004 when he set up an underground FM radio station in Swat to promote fundamentalist and anti-Western ideas.
He and his fighters took over the valley in 2009 and imposed strict Islamic rule. Fazlullah opposes polio vaccinations, which he has described as a Jewish and Christian conspiracy to harm Muslims, and ordered the closure of girls' schools.
He fled to Afghanistan when the Pakistani army took over the valley in an offensive in 2009.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Ron Popeski)