Clash between religious factions in Pakistan: 18 killed

Supporters of two religious leaders fought gun battles in northwestern Pakistan , leaving at least 18 people dead and several injured, an official said Tuesday. The fighting broke out late Monday and continued until early Tuesday in the tribal village of Nala, west of the Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier province, said Shah Zaman Khan, a spokesman for the government department responsible for security of the area.

Khan said the fighting has stopped, and security forces were deployed to prevent more clashes. He said 8,000 troops were already in the area because of tensions after fighting last month between the two factions. The fighting flared Monday night after armed supporters of Mufti Munir Shakir, a local cleric, tried to set fire to the home of a supporter of Shakir's rival, Pir Saifur Rahman, a leader of the Barelvi sect, Khan said. Most of the dead were Rahman's men, he said.

A Nala resident claimed 23 people had died, basing his estimate on bodies he had seen and accounts from other villagers. "The fighting continued the whole night. There is tension and fear in the area," local villager Sultan Khan Afridi said.

Security forces fired artillery to quell Shakir's followers, targeting their headquarters in Nala, Zaman Khan said. It wasn't clear whether that firing caused any of the casualties. In February, Shakir's supporters exchanged gunfire with a council of tribal elders who were trying to mediate peace between Shakir and Rahman. That violence left at least five people dead.

The unrest in Khyber Agency, one of Pakistan 's semi-autonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan , comes amid escalating violence elsewhere along the northwestern frontier between pro-Taliban tribesmen and security forces. The enmity between Shakir and Rahman was sparked months ago when the two faction leaders operated competing private radio stations broadcasting religious programs in the Khyber region. They used the broadcasts to criticize each other's beliefs.

After February's fighting, a tribal council forced both Shakir and Rahman off the airwaves and leave the area. The two leaders have reportedly left Khyber but Shakir's followers have continued operating a radio station in Nala.

In recent weeks they have appealed to listeners to join a private militia known as the Laskar-i-Islam or Army of Islam that they say would be capable of maintaining law and order in the region. Last week, the Cabinet enhanced the powers of the state electronic media regulator to close private FM stations in the tribal areas that fan sectarian unrest or broadcast anti-government material, reports the AP.

N.U.