Image: Pakistani tribal man
Mohammad Sajjad  /  AP
A Pakistani tribal man visits the remnants of a militant headquarters that was destroyed by security forces in Aka Kheil in the Pakistani tribal area of Khyber on Wednesday.
updated 8/12/2009 2:42:35 PM ET 2009-08-12T18:42:35

Fierce clashes between Taliban fighters and those loyal to a pro-government warlord killed at least 70 people Wednesday, intelligence officials said, a week after a CIA drone reportedly killed the top Taliban leader in Pakistan.

The clashes pitched Taliban militants against followers of tribal warlord Turkistan Bitani on the fringes of the South Waziristan border region, where U.S. and Pakistani officials believe Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud died in a missile strike last Wednesday.

Pakistan's army sent helicopter gunships as reinforcements to pound about 300 Taliban fighters attacking Bitani's mountain stronghold, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The fighting raged for five hours, with militants using rockets, mortars and anti-aircraft guns against Bitani's village of Sura Ghar, the officials said, adding that wireless intercepts from the area showed at least 70 people — including one woman in the village — had been killed. They said 10 of the dead were from Bitani's stronghold, while the rest were militants.

It was impossible to independently confirm the death toll, as the fighting was taking place in a remote, mountainous area that is off-limits to journalists.

Bitani put the casualty figure higher, telling The Associated Press that a total of about 90 fighters had been killed and 40 houses destroyed.

The battle followed days of confusion and competing claims over Mehsud's fate. While U.S. and Pakistani officials say they are almost certain he is dead, Taliban commanders insist he is alive.

Neither side has produced any evidence to back up their assertions, and since the claims of Mehsud's death, both the Taliban and the Pakistani government have been waging competing propaganda campaigns over the state of the Taliban's leadership.

Gunbattle over leadership?
Days after the strike, Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed a Taliban meeting to chose Mehsud's successor degenerated into a gunbattle between leading contenders to replace Mehsud — Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud — and that one of the two was dead.

Bitani made similar claims, saying there had been a gunfight at the meeting, known as a shura — although he had said both Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud were dead.

The two militant commanders both later phoned international media organizations to prove they were alive.

Mehsud and his followers have been the target of both U.S. and Pakistani operations aimed at ridding the country's northwest of militants.

Washington has increased its focus on Pakistan's rugged tribal regions because they provide safe haven for insurgents fighting international forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Nuclear facilities eyed
The U.S. is also concerned the militants could undermine the stability of the government in Islamabad, especially after Taliban insurgents briefly captured areas some 60 miles from the capital. That bold takeover stoked fears Pakistan's nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

A recent report written by a U.K.-based security expert said that militants had attacked nuclear facilities three times in two years, but a military spokesman denied that on Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said there is "absolutely no chance" the country's atomic weapons could fall into terrorist hands.

Shaun Gregory, a professor at Bradford University's Pakistan Security Research Unit, wrote that several militant attacks have already hit military bases where nuclear components are secretly stored. The article appeared in the July newsletter of the Combating Terrorism Center of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Abbas said Wednesday that none of the military bases named was used to store atomic weapons.

Booby-trapped motorcycle

Separately, a bomb and gunfire attack against a paramilitary checkpoint in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta killed at least two passers-by and wounded four other people, including a police officer, authorities said.

Senior police officer Mohammad Suleman said a booby-trapped motorcycle exploded near a Frontier Corps checkpoint in central Quetta, and then gunmen on another motorcycle opened fire.

Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, where ethnic Baluch militants have been waging a low-level insurgency in the impoverished but oil-rich province for decades.

Suleman said Baluch separatists were suspected of having carried out the attack.

More on: Pakistan | Baitullah Mehsud

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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