60 dead as Pakistan air strikes target militants
MIRANSHAH — Pakistani air force jets pounded Taliban targets in a restive tribal area near the Afghan border yesterday, killing at least 60 people including insurgent commanders, officials said.
The strikes will come as a fresh blow to stop-start peace talks between the government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which have made little progress since they began in February.
There have been a number of insurgent attacks on security forces in recent weeks and the air raids fit a familiar pattern of the armed forces responding by hitting the insurgents’ bases in the tribal areas.
Targets in North Waziristan district, a stronghold of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants, were hit in the early hours of yesterday morning.
“As per reports so far, 60 hardcore terrorists including some of the important commanders and foreigners were also killed in the strikes and around 30 were injured,” a statement from the military’s media wing said, without elaborating on who the commanders were.
The number and identity of the dead could not be verified independently because fighting is ongoing and journalists cannot enter the area.
Local intelligence officials and residents said civilians were among the wounded.
The military said those targeted in yesterday’s operation were linked to recent bomb and suicide attacks around the country.
It also said that a “huge cache” of munitions were destroyed in the strikes.
An AFP reporter in the district said helicopter gunships and ground troops were firing on targets in and around the town of Mir Ali, and local tribesmen had been ordered to evacuate.
An intelligence official added that the Datta Khel and Ghulam Ali areas were also targeted.
North Waziristan is one of the seven rugged semi-autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border, an area long tagged by Washington as the most dangerous place in the world.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government began negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) through intermediaries in February, with a ceasefire beginning March 1 but breaking down a month later.
Analyst Hasan Askari said the strikes were in line with the military’s policy of retaliating to attacks the militants’ headquarters.
“There is also realisation among government that the dialogue is more or less dead,” he added.
Since the TTP launched their insurgency in 2007, more than 6,800 people have been killed in bomb and gun attacks around Pakistan, according to an AFP tally.
There have also been clashes between supporters of TTP commander Khan Said Sajna and followers of the late TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud.
The group has long been riven by infighting and the feud began after Sajna, a senior commander, was rejected for the leadership following the killing of then-leader Mehsud last November, militants say.
Sajna had been seen as a strong candidate to become TTP chief following Mehsud’s death.
But the movement’s ruling council at the last minute elected Mullah Fazlullah, who hails from Swat and is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. — AFP