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updated 3/13/2011 2:49:15 PM ET 2011-03-13T18:49:15

Gunmen ambushed a van and killed nine civilians Sunday in a stretch of northwestern Pakistan covered by a new peace deal among tribes from rival Muslim sects. Security forces responding to the attack killed three alleged gunmen, police said.

The clash does not bode well for the future of the peace accord in the Kurram tribal region, which ended a four-year conflict that cost hundreds of lives.

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Police official Mir Chaman Khan said the attack occurred in Hangu district along the main road from Kurram to the city of Peshawar. The road had recently reopened after the Shiite Muslim Toori and Bangash tribes inked the deal with the Mangal and other Sunni Muslim tribes.

The clash occurred in a Sunni-dominated area. The van was coming from Parachinar, a Shiite-dominated town in Kurram.

Khan declined to speculate on who was behind the attack.

But tribesmen in Kurram also have reported that the Haqqani network, a fiercely independent branch of the Afghan Taliban and a major enemy of U.S. and NATO forces, had cut a deal with the Shiites so it could use Kurram as a staging ground for fighting in Afghanistan.

There have been reports that Taliban militants planned to take advantage of the peace deal to gain more territory along the Afghan border.

The Taliban, who adhere to a hard-line interpretation of Sunni Islam, have at times exploited sectarian and tribal feuds to spread their influence along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Pakistan's tribal belt is a hotbed of Islamist militant groups, many linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. The Pakistani army has launched offensives in several areas, and the United States has fired hundreds of missiles at suspected militants using unmanned aircraft in the region.

On Sunday, Pakistani intelligence officials said three suspected U.S. missile strikes in the country's tribal regions killed seven alleged militants and wounded five more.

One of the missile strikes missed a target in Azam Warsak, South Waziristan.

A missile landed near a car carrying militants, who managed to flee before another missile hit the vehicle, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with reporters.

They said six missiles in two other strikes hit a vehicle and a compound in neighboring Spalgah village near Miran Shah in North Waziristan, killing seven militants and wounding five more. They suspected the insurgents killed in the two strikes belonged to the Pakistani Taliban holed up in the compound.

North Waziristan is home to several militant groups focused on fighting U.S. and its allied NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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