updated 3/28/2006 10:12:47 PM ET 2006-03-29T03:12:47

A battle for the airwaves between two Islamic preachers with their own FM radio stations in Pakistan escalated into bitter fighting that killed at least 24 people.

The government threatened action unless tribal militiamen vacated the scene of the heaviest clashes Tuesday in Khyber Agency, where thousands of security forces were on alert.

The violence in Pakistan's northwestern frontier with Afghanistan raised new doubts about the government's grip over the lawless region, where Islamic radicals, including Taliban sympathizers, wield growing influence.

The fighting broke out late Monday and continued into Tuesday after hundreds of supporters of cleric Mufti Munir Shakir gathered in Badshahkili village to destroy the home of a supporter of Shakir's rival, Pir Saifur Rahman, a leader of the Barelvi sect, officials and residents said.

Mortars, RPGs, grenades
Rahman's supporters resisted. The two sides traded fire with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and hand grenades, residents said.

Sikander Qayyum, a senior security official for Pakistan's tribal regions, said 24 people were killed and 14 injured, including two children. He said the dead included 19 of Rahman's supporters, most of them Afghans, and five from Shakir's side.

An Associated Press reporter saw 18 bodies, many of them men with long hair and beards.

Qayyum said the government was ordering Shakir's followers to vacate an area within a kilometer (half a mile) of Badshahkili. "Strong action will be taken" against any who do not leave, he told reporters.

Shah Zaman Khan, a local government spokesman, said 8,000 troops were already in the area due to tensions after fighting between the two factions left at least five dead last month.

Dueling broadcasts
The enmity between Shakir and Rahman was sparked when they started criticizing each other's religious beliefs in broadcasts by their small FM radio stations, run from homes in the remote region dominated by Pashtun tribesmen.

After February's factional clashes, a tribal council forced both Shakir and Rahman off the airwaves. The two were also ordered to leave Khyber but Shakir's followers have continued operating a radio station in nearby Nala village.

Shakir's followers have recently appealed to listeners to join a private militia known as the Laskar-i-Islam or Army of Islam, which they say would be capable of maintaining law and order in the region.

In recent weeks, unrest has spread in Pakistan's tribal regions, where pro-Taliban tribesmen have clashed with security forces, leaving scores dead.

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