ISLAMABAD - A U.S. missile slammed into a suspected Taliban camp in a lawless Pakistani tribal region Tuesday, intelligence officials and Taliban commanders said, killing anywhere between six and 14 people, a week after a similar strike reportedly took out the group's leader.
Washington and Islamabad have said they are almost certain that last Wednesday's drone strike killed Pakistan's most wanted man, Baitullah Mehsud, even though Taliban commanders have insisted their leader is still alive.
The government publicly opposes U.S. missile strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it more difficult for the army to operate against the Taliban. But criticism has been muted against last week's attack on Mehsud, who is suspected of masterminding the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and dozens of other suicide bombings.
Tuesday's missile hit a compound in Mehsud's stronghold, South Waziristan, near the Afghan border, two intelligence officials in Islamabad said.
Two other intelligence officials, based in northwestern Pakistan, said the strike had killed 14 militants. All four spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
However, Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said the missile had hit a house, not a militant hide-out.
"Today, an American missile hit a home in South Waziristan," he told an Associated Press reporter by telephone. "Only innocent civilians were living there, and six of them died."
Tariq also repeated assertions that Mehsud was still alive. "I have said it again and again: Baitullah Mehsud is safe. He is in good health," he said.
Differing claims from the Taliban and state authorities about the same event have become commonplace - and most are impossible to verify. The tribal areas are off-limits to foreign journalists and poor security also makes it very difficult for Pakistanis to report there.
Analysts suggest it could be in the interests of top commanders in Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to deny their leader is dead until they can replace him. Mehsud brought various militant factions under a unified if loose command that posed a major threat to Pakistan's security forces, and his death would be a major blow for the Taliban.
The U.S. rarely acknowledges or discusses the missile strikes, which are carried out by unmanned drone aircraft, but the pace of such attacks in the tribal areas has increased in the past year.
Two Taliban sources told an AP reporter that at least eight drone aircraft had been flying over known Mehsud areas in South Waziristan for the past three days, and that the Taliban was being very cautious of its movements for that reason. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they could not discuss such issues publicly.
Militant commanders are said to have been holding shuras, or meetings, to discuss who should succeed Mehsud as Taliban leader, but it was unclear whether Tuesday's missile strike targeted such a gathering. A Mehsud deputy on Monday denied reports of infighting over the succession - allegations repeated by the government Tuesday.
"The current position is that their men are scattered, and they are fighting with each other," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.
As confusion swirled over Mehsud's fate, violence continued to batter the northwest.
At least a dozen rockets slammed into the main city of Peshawar early Tuesday, sending panicked residents fleeing their homes. At least two civilians were killed and 10 others wounded, police official Nisar Khan said.
Taliban militants often target security outposts in the countryside, but rocket attacks against cities are rare.
"It is an act of terrorism, but we don't know who the attackers were," Khan said.
Hours later, militants attacked a paramilitary Frontier Corps base outside Peshawar, and three militants were killed in the gunbattle, the military said in a statement.
Separately, Frontier Corps troops on an operation clashed with militants in the Khyber tribal region, leaving 17 militants dead, the corps said in a statement. It said six militant bases and an ammunition dump were destroyed. The casualty figure could not be independently confirmed.
Pakistan's military has been winding down a three-month offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, elsewhere in the northwest, although clashes still break out there.
The army said Tuesday that a soldier was killed during a clash with militants in Swat while authorities arrested 29 suspected militants - including three who turned themselves in - during separate search operations.
Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar also contributed to this report.