The drone crashed in South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal belt that Washington calls a global headquarters of Al-Qaeda, the officials told AFP. - File photo

DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Pakistani soldiers battled Taliban fighters in an attempt to seize precious debris from a suspected US 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, said the intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The debris was first 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, 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 US Embassy responded to request for comment.

The United States uses unmanned surveillance aircraft in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan to monitor militants in Pakistan, from where Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked fighters launch attacks in Afghanistan.

It also uses Predator armed drones to launch missile attacks aimed at militants in Pakistan's unstable northwestern border areas.

US drone crashes are very rare in Pakistan, but a surveillance drone equipped with a camera crashed in southwestern Pakistan on August 25.

In September 2008, tribesmen in South Waziristan claimed to have shot down another surveillance drone in Jalal village, near the Afghan border.

The Pakistani army said at the time that it was investigating that incident but did not make the results of the probe public.

The US drone campaign is deeply unpopular among an anti-American Pakistani public and the government has publicly demanded an end to the attacks.

However, in private, Pakistani military and civilian leaders are thought to co-operate with the programme and Washington says it has been successful in eliminating a number of Al-Qaeda- and Taliban-linked militants in Pakistan.

Around two dozen drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since elite US forces killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a suburban home near Pakistan's main military academy in Abbottabad, close to the capital, on May 2.

The raid humiliated Pakistan and prompted allegations of incompetence and complicity in sheltering bin Laden.

Pakistan is seen as a key ally for the United States in its fight against militancy, but relations soured after the bin Laden raid, which both countries say was carried out without Islamabad being warned.