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Clash Between Taliban Factions Kills 7 In Pakistan

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- At least seven militants have been killed in northwest Pakistan in a clash between fighters loyal to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud -- who the government says is dead -- and his rivals, officials and residents said.

The clash erupted when Mehsud's fighters attacked militants loyal to a pro-government group led by Turkestan Bitani, near the South Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border.

"Seven people were killed in the clashes and Mehsud people took away four people with them," Momin Khan, a resident, told Reuters by telephone from the area.

Intelligence officials and local television channels reported that nine people were killed in the clash.

An intelligence official said Bitani's fighters later attacked a village inhabited by Mehsud loyalists and abducted 15 tribesmen.

Clashes often take place between the two groups in and near Mehsud's powerbase in South Waziristan. Eight people were killed in such clashes last week.

Pakistani and U.S. officials say they are almost certain Mehsud was killed in a missile strike by a pilotless U.S. drone last week. Pakistani officials say Mehsud's second wife and bodyguards were also killed in the attack on the house of his father-in-law in South Waziristan.

Mehsud's aides have disputed the claim and say he is alive. It is very difficult to verify the claims and counterclaims because Mehsud's tribal lands are very remote and are under the control of the Taliban.

Ten militants were killed in a U.S. missile strike in the region on August 11.

Pakistan officially objects to drone attacks, saying they undermine its sovereignty, but Pakistani media have said the attack on Mehsud was carried out with Islamabad's cooperation.

Mehsud is, or was, the leader of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, an alliance of around 13 militant groups, and is blamed for a wave of bomb and suicide attacks across Pakistan, including the one that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.