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Pakistani Troops Kill 15 Taliban In Clashes

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani forces backed by helicopter gunships have killed 15 Taliban in clashes that erupted after militants attacked a military post and convoy in the northwest of the country, an official said today.

Security forces have in recent days intensified operations against Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Bajaur, an ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghan border, as part of its efforts to defeat Pakistani Taliban militants fighting the state.

The latest fighting broke out on January 31 in the militant stronghold of Wara Mamoon and lasted until midnight, local government official Bajaur Abdul Malik told Reuters.

"The Taliban first attacked our checkpoint and convoy and then we responded with ground and air attacks," he said.

Malik said 15 militants and one soldier were killed and 10 militants were wounded.

Pakistan's Taliban denied a report that their leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone aircraft strike.

Pakistan's military said earlier it was investigating reports that Hakimullah died from wounds sustained in a drone attack on January 17 and had been buried in the Orakzai tribal region in the northwest of the country.

The army mounted a major offensive in Bajaur in 2008 and declared the region largely cleared of militants after months of clashes.

On January 30, a suicide car-bomber killed 14 people in an attack near a security checkpost in Bajaur's main town of Khar.

Bajaur is opposite the eastern Afghan province of Kunar and has long been an infiltration route for militants entering Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces there.

The United States sees the elimination of militant enclaves in northwest Pakistan, from where the Taliban orchestrate their insurgency in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda plots violence further afield, as vital for bringing stability to Afghanistan.

The United States has stepped up drone strikes on sanctuaries for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Pakistani side of the border since a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan's Khost Province on December 30.

Pakistan objects to the drone strikes and says it violates its sovereignty and complicates its efforts against militancy by inflaming public anger.