PESHAWAR, Pakistan – At least a dozen rockets slammed into Pakistan's main northwest city before dawn Tuesday, killing two civilians, while militants launched an assault on a paramilitary base nearby, authorities said.
The spate of violence came as the militants and government officials traded claims over the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban following the reported death of top commander Baitullah Mehsud in a CIA missile strike last week.
The Taliban have vowed retaliation against the government for what it says are false reports that Mehsud died. Pakistani and U.S. officials have said Mehsud is almost certainly dead and that there may be a power struggle over for succession.
The rocket attacks on a residential area of Peshawar sent panicked residents running from their homes shortly after 1 a.m., police official Nisar Khan said. At least two civilians were killed and 10 others wounded.
Taliban militants often target security outposts in the countryside with heavy weapons, but rocket attacks are rare in Pakistan's cities. Tuesday's barrage followed a bomb blast Monday in Peshawar near a local government official's vehicle, although the official was not hurt.
"It is an act of terrorism, but we don't know who the attackers were," Khan told The Associated Press.
Hours later, a group of militants attacked a paramilitary Frontier Corps base in Basai, outside Peshawar, the military said in a statement. It said three militants were killed in the gunbattle, but gave no casualty figures for the paramilitary.
No one claimed immediate responsibility for the assaults, Khan said, but Peshawar is close to Taliban-controlled lawless tribal areas in the northwest.
A top Pakistani official said Tuesday that supporters of Mehsud were fighting with each other after his death.
"The current position is that their men are scattered, and they are fighting with each other," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in comments broadcast by a local news channel Tuesday.
Malik also said Monday that Al Qaeda wants to choose the next Pakistani Taliban leader — a move that could help the terrorist group maintain its sanctuaries near the Afghan border.
However, one contender for the leadership, Hakimullah, phoned The Associated Press on Monday and railed against Pakistani government claims that he himself had been killed in succession infighting.
He also insisted the Taliban chief was alive and his supporters unified.
Analysts have suggested that it could be in the interests of top commanders within Mehsud's alliance, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who would replace him.
Mehsud's death would be a major blow for the Pakistani Taliban. He brought various Islamist militant factions under a unified if loose command that posed an unprecedented threat to the Pakistani security forces.
Al Qaeda is believed to have seen him as a key ally.
Al Qaeda leaders and fighters fled into Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. Several senior Al Qaeda leaders have since been killed or captured inside Pakistan and top figures, such as Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, are suspected to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal regions.
While the Taliban have escalated their campaign in Pakistan in the past two years — rather than focus just on mounting attacks on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan — the resulting bloodshed has eroded sympathy for the Taliban among Pakistanis and galvanized public support for army campaigns against the militants.