PESHAWAR // The death toll from Pakistani air strikes on militant hideouts in a northwestern tribal area today rose to 55, with reports of some civilian deaths, security officials said. Pakistani jet fighters yesterday targeted militants preparing for imminent suicide attacks and destroyed their bases in the lawless Khyber tribal district, which borders Afghanistan, security officials said.
"Militants were using civilians and their families as human shields and there could be some civilian casualties but we do not know how many," a senior security official said, confirming the new toll. Two military and an intelligence official also confirmed the incident in the Tirah valley and the death toll. "At least 12 civilians were killed when jets dropped shells on a convoy," a local government official said.
In April, the Pakistan army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, made a rare public apology over the deaths of some 60 civilians, also in Tirah valley, during military operations and issued orders to avoid further incidents. Security officials said the air strikes destroyed militant hideouts, a training centre, an illegal FM radio station and eight vehicles prepared for suicide attack in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The militants belonged to the Lashkar-e-Islam group and included fighters who fled last year's offensive by the Pakistan military in the northwestern Swat valley, the security official said. Lashkar-e-Islam, which means Army of Islam, is a domestic Islamist group with ties to the Taliban that has caused unrest in the Khyber region, including attacks on Nato supply vehicles traveling through the area.
Khyber is on the main Nato land supply route through Pakistan into Afghanistan, where almost 150,000 foreign personnel are battling to reverse an escalating Taliban insurgency, now in its ninth year. The district neighbors the northwestern city of Peshawar, which is increasingly the target of Taliban and al Qa'eda-linked bomb attacks. US officials consider northwest Pakistan a haven for al Qa'eda and Taliban militants who fled the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan to regroup and launch attacks on foreign forces across the border.
Pakistan has launched several operations in the past two years in Khyber to flush out the fighters. A senior military official in Peshawar said he had no information about civilian casualties in the air strikes. * AFP