Agencies - Soldiers killed 15 militants in a clash early Saturday in the Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border as part of a major anti-insurgent offensive, the military said.

It said a group of militants were spotted near a military post in Mastak Sub Sector in the Tirah Valley. “Troops on post valiantly engaged terrorists and surrounded them, intense gun battle took place.... 15 terrorists were killed, three soldiers were also injured in action,” the military said in a statement.

Khyber is one of seven autonomous tribal districts along Pakistan’s mountainous western border which became a hotbed of militants following the US-led invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in 2001.

The military launched its latest offensive in Khyber in October 2014, four months after a similar operation began in North Waziristan district, triggered by a bloody Taliban attack on Karachi airport that sank faltering peace talks.

Air strikes, artillery, mortars and ground troops have all been used to take back territory. Both conflict zones are off-limits to journalists, making it difficult to verify the number and identity of those killed.

According to Reuters, security forces killed 30 militants in gun battles in the mountainous northwestern Khyber region on Saturday, a senior official said, but a spokesman for the militants denied suffering any losses.

Both sides have been making conflicting claims about their success in clashes in Tirah Valley. “The security forces had started advancement towards the hilltops where the terrorists had established sanctuaries,” a senior security official in Peshawar, who requested that he not be identified, said. “So far, 30 terrorists have been killed and a number of their compounds destroyed.”

He said “fierce” fighting was continuing. The bodies of 10 Taliban fighters were taken away along with weapons and ammunition, the military said in a statement. Three soldiers were also wounded, it said. The air force, struggling to reclaim land lost to the militants years ago, has been pounding positions in the Tirah Valley for days and the military said before Saturday’s clashes it had killed more than 100 militants. At least seven soldiers had also been killed, it said.

Salahuddin Ayubi, a spokesman for the Lashkar-e-Islami, which announced an alliance with the Pakistani Taliban earlier this month, denied suffering losses on Saturday. Ayubi said fighting between their fighters and Pakistani forces started early on Saturday in parts of the valley.

“We didn’t suffer human losses. Our fighters are engaged in fighting and didn’t vacate their posts in Tirah,” he told Reuters. Taliban sources said that leaders had urged fighters to get to the valley and support Lashkar-e-Islami.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban share a similar jihadist ideology but operate as separate entities. The Pakistani Taliban are focused on toppling the state and establishing strict Islamic rule.  A military official said on condition of anonymity on Friday that it would be extremely difficult for Pakistan to commit troops to a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as it was already overstretched on its own borders.