- Associated Press - Sunday, September 18, 2011

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani soldiers battled Taliban fighters in an attempt to seize precious debris from a suspected U.S. drone that crashed in a rugged tribal area near the Afghan border, Pakistani intelligence officials and militants said Sunday.

The Taliban said they shot down the unmanned aircraft, which crashed Saturday night near Jangara village in the South Waziristan tribal area.

Pakistani intelligence officials said they were not certain whether Taliban fire or technical problems brought down the drone. Drone crashes have happened before in Pakistan, but they are rare.

Pakistan first learned of the crash by intercepting Taliban radio communications, the intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The debris first was seized by the Taliban. Several hours later, the Pakistani army sent soldiers in to wrest it out of militant hands, sparking a fight with the Taliban in which three militants were killed, said the officials. Three militants and two soldiers were also wounded in the clash, they said.

The intelligence officials said the troops were successful in seizing the debris, but Pakistani Taliban commander Azmatullah Diwana claimed his fighters repelled the soldiers. The army then sent helicopter gunships into the area where the militants were holding the debris, Mr. Diwana told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Nawab Khan, a government official in South Waziristan, confirmed the drone crash and the subsequent clash between militants and army troops, but he did not know whether the soldiers were successful in seizing the debris.

Neither the Pakistani army nor the U.S. Embassy responded to request for comment.

The U.S. normally does not acknowledge the covert CIA-run drone program in Pakistan, but U.S. officials have said privately that the attacks have killed many high-level militants — most recently, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and its chief of operations in Pakistan, Abu Hafs al-Shahri.

President Obama has dramatically increased the number of drone attacks against militants in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal region since taking office in 2009 — partly in response to Pakistan’s failure to target militants who stage attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials regularly denounce the drone attacks as violations of the country’s sovereignty, but the government is widely believed to have supported the strikes in the past and even allowed the aircraft to take off from bases within Pakistan.

That support has come under strain in recent months, especially in the wake of the U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town on May 2. The Pakistanis were outraged that the U.S. didn’t tell them about the operation beforehand.

Elsewhere in Pakistan’s tribal region, militants attacked a security checkpoint, killing a policeman and two members of an anti-Taliban militia, said Farooq Khan, a local government administrator.

The attack took place late Saturday night in the Aka Khel area of the Khyber tribal region, Mr. Khan said. The checkpoint is located on a key route that NATO uses to transport supplies to forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Security forces and local tribesmen fought back against the militants, killing 10 of them, he said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Pakistani Taliban has staged frequent attacks against security forces and tribesmen who have opposed them.

Associated Press writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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