Fighting between two banned Islamist militant groups in Pakistan’s restive northwestern tribal belt along the Afghan border has killed at least 70 people and wounded scores more since fierce clashes broke out last week.
Local residents told VOA Radio Deewa that the Pakistani Taliban, the largest alliance of militant groups in Pakistan’s remote tribal area, launched a new offensive Monday that led to the capture of five strategic hilltops from a rival faction, the pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam, which denied the claims.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, said they began attacking Ansar-ul-Islam fighters three days ago when the group killed some of their volunteers and blocked supply routes in the Khyber tribal district’s Tirah Valley, breaking an agreement they had signed a year before.
The latest fighting, the most serious in years in the tribal areas, follows months of Pakistani media reports speculating that Ansar-ul-Islam may have split from the Pakistani Taliban-led coalition.
In a related development, another banned Islamist group, Lashkar-e-Islam, launched its own attack against Ansar-ul-Islam on Monday.
Bitter rivals, both groups had co-existed in an uneasy alliance under the Pakistani Taliban umbrella. But Ansar-ul-Islam has reportedly struck deals with local tribal chiefs to aid its fight against Lashkar-e-Islam militants, who frequently target Pakistani troops.
The four days of clashes, which have killed scores of fighters, appear to mark the start of a turf war to control the strategically important Tirah Valley. Thousands of families have reportedly been displaced by the fighting.
The remote and mountainous area is highly valued by militant groups as a base of operations. It straddles three tribal agencies - Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai - and is located near one of the only two land routes into Afghanistan used by NATO forces.
Tirah is inaccessible to journalists and aid workers so it is not possible to confirm the death toll and other information independently.