ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Seven people were killed in a gunbattle in a tribal region near the Afghan border as Pakistani Islamic militants raided homes searching for rivals, residents and a representative of the militants said on Thursday.
More than 30 people have died this month alone in clashes between the militants, who call themselves Taliban like Afghanistan”s former hardline rulers, and rivals they have branded bandits in the remote North Waziristan tribal region.
A representative of the militants, many of whom are religious students, said five bandits and two Taliban were killed in the remote Shawal area after the raids on several fortress-like tribal homes on Wednesday.
Government officials declined to comment but travellers from the area, to the west of the region”s main town of Miranshah, confirmed the latest fighting.
Two bullet-riddled bodies were found in a stream on the outskirts of Miranshah on Thursday. One of the men was a retired junior officer of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, the other was a friend, a local official said.
The two were probably killed on Wednesday night but it was not known by whom, the official said.
Violence erupted in early December between the well-armed militants and members of a gang that had been extorting money from travellers. Since then, the militants have been searching out their rivals and the mutilated bodies of several gang members have been strung up in public. Some have been beheaded.
Government officials have played down the violence as a tribal feud that security forces are reluctant to get involved in, hoping the dispute can be resolved by tribal councils that have traditionally ruled the area.
REPORTER STILL MISSING
Waziristan is part of Pakistan”s semi-autonomous tribal belt that stretches through rugged mountains and deserts along the border with Afghanistan.
Many al Qaeda members fled to the region from Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and were given shelter by militant sympathisers from conservative Pashtun tribes that inhabit both sides of the border.
Pakistan”s government has had about 70,000 troops in the region for the past two years after vowing to clear the region of foreign militants and suppress their Pakistani accomplices.
Hundreds of people — both militants and government troops — have been killed.
The latest violence follows a Dec. 1 blast in a house near Miranshah where government officials said a senior al Qaeda commander, Abu Hamza Rabia, and four other people were killed.
Authorities say Rabia died when explosives at his hideout detonated accidentally, but villagers said the blast was caused by a missile from an aircraft, possibly a U.S. drone.
Four days later, unidentified gunmen kidnapped Miranshah journalist Hayatullah Khan who reported that Rabia was killed by a U.S. missile and had taken photographs of what villagers said were fragments of the weapon. He has not been heard of since.
In Baluchistan province, to the southwest of Waziristan, suspected tribal rebels blew up two electricity pylons, cutting power to a district, and fired rockets at a paramilitary post but there were no casualties, a provincial official said.