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Pakistani airstrike kills many civilians: official

Dilla Baz Khan was pulling a woman from the rubble of an air raid when Pakistani jets screamed back into the valley for a second bombing run, killing scores of people in a village locals say had been supportive of army offensives against militants along the Afghan border.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dilla Baz Khan was pulling a woman from the rubble of an air raid when Pakistani jets screamed back into the valley for a second bombing run, killing scores of people in a village locals say had been supportive of army offensives against militants along the Afghan border.

Khan and other survivors said Tuesday at least 68 villagers were killed in the weekend airstrikes, sharply contradicting initial army accounts that the dead were Islamist militants. A local administration official said $125,000 had been paid in compensation to victims.

The official declined to say how many of the dead were civilians but said Shafiullah Khan, the top official in Khyber, apologized to local tribesman and admitted the victims were "mostly" innocent villagers.

The accounts point to one of the most serious incidents of civilian casualties inflicted by Pakistan's military in the border region in recent years. The carnage is likely to hurt efforts to get the backing of local tribesman for offensives against insurgents behind bloody bombings in Pakistan, as well as attacks on international troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Elsewhere in the northwest, a village elder claimed 13 civilians were killed in the latest U.S. missile strike there, contesting accounts by Pakistani security officials that four militants died in the attack in North Waziristan on Monday night.

The Pakistani army has carried out a series of offensives against Taliban and al-Qaida in the northwest over the last 18 months that have succeeded in pushing them back in some areas and won praise from the United States and the nuclear-armed nation's other Western backers.

Pakistani politicians have either supported the operations or avoided criticizing them — a change from several years ago when many backed negotiations with the insurgents. The public has also broadly supported the fight, which Washington says is vital for its efforts to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But accounts of civilian casualties could quickly cut away at that support in a country where unease at the idea of the army being deployed against fellow Muslims and countrymen is never far from the surface and anti-American sentiment runs rife.

The Pakistani military regularly claims to kill many militants in airstrikes, shelling and ground operations in the northwest, but rarely mentions civilian deaths. It is unclear whether that is because such deaths do not occur, or simply because the army does not report them.

Independent accounts of army operations in the tribal regions are extremely rare. The area is largely out of bounds for reporters and highly dangerous to visit because of the likelihood of being abducted by militants, who still control much of the area.

Three witnesses interviewed Tuesday in a hospital in the main northwestern city of Peshawar gave the first detailed account of the air raids, which took place Saturday morning in the remote village of Sara Walla in the Khyber tribal agency.

They said most families in the village have sons in the security forces and it had a history of cooperating with the army. He said the owner of the house that was bombed initially, Hamid Khan, has two sons serving in the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

"This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information," said Khanan Gul Khan, a Sara Walla resident who was visiting a relative in the hospital. "This area has nothing to do with militants."

The first strike took place about 8:30 a.m. The fighter jets returned as villagers tried to dig out people from the rubble two hours later, said Khan and the others.

"We were about to pull out a lady from the rubble when another jet came and bombed us," said Dilla Baz Khan from the orthopedic ward of the Hayatabad medical complex, where he was being treated for a broken arm. "Then I lost consciousness."

He said an official from the Khyber administration visited him Monday and gave him $220 to compensate for the loss of four relatives, including his brother. "He said, 'We are sorry for this, and we pray for your early recovery,'" he said.

The administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue, said the families of 71 victims had been compensated. Khanan Gul Khan said 68 people had been killed. Dawn, a respected English-language daily, said 60 villagers were slain and criticized the strikes in an editorial Tuesday.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas on Monday denied any of the dead were civilians, saying the army had intelligence that militants were gathering at the site of the strike. On Tuesday, he declined further comment and directed inquires to the office of the political administration.

The main supply route to international troops in landlocked Afghanistan runs through Khyber.

Brief reports of significant civilian casualties in the strikes have appeared in the local media in recent days, but have not attracted much attention — a possible reflection of the reluctance of the political and media elite to criticize the powerful army.

Retired Gen. Talat Masood said the military had to be extremely careful when choosing targets in the tribal regions.

"Whereas the intention may have been noble, the fact is that (these raids) did hit innocent people," he said. "This can easily cause support for the militants."

The United States also regularly attacks al-Qaida and Taliban targets in northwest Pakistan with missiles fired from unmanned drones. American officials do not acknowledge being behind the attacks, which are credited with killing scores of insurgents. Critics say those attacks also regularly claim civilian lives.

Pakistan intelligence officials, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said a missile attack late Monday close to the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan killed four suspected militants. Noor Gul, a resident in the village, disputed that Tuesday, saying 13 civilians, including two children, were killed.


Brummitt reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Zarar Khan also contributed to this report from Islamabad.