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Pakistani airstrike investigated after 50 civilian deaths reported

Jets struck in the Tirah Valley, a refuge for the Taliban. Pakistani officials say Islamist fighters were targeted but many of those hospitalized were linked to paramilitaries who battle militants.

April 14, 2010|By Zulfiqar Ali and Alex Rodriguez

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Peshawar, Pakistan -- Officials in Pakistan's volatile tribal belt are investigating a recent airstrike by Pakistani military jets that villagers say killed at least 50 civilians in the Khyber region along the Afghan border.

The airstrike occurred Saturday in the Tirah Valley, a swath of dense woods that Taliban militants have been fleeing to as Pakistani troops have stepped up pressure on the insurgent group's strongholds in surrounding tribal areas.

Last weekend, tribal belt officials said the airstrike targeted Islamist fighters with Lashkar-e-Islam, a Taliban-linked militant group. A Pakistani army spokesman said the military had conducted three days of reconnaissance and had verified the locations of bunkers and hide-outs before launching the strike.

But residents of the Tirah Valley village of Sra Vela said the dead and wounded were civilians with no connections to the militant groups.

Many of the wounded taken to a hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar were active or retired members of Pakistan's Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that battles militants in the tribal belt.

"There is not a single militant in the area," said Kashmalo Khan, 63, a retired Frontier Corps officer who suffered a broken leg in the airstrike.

"God knows better who gave information to the government about militants' presence in the area."

Villagers said the house targeted in the airstrike belonged to a tribesman with sons serving in the Frontier Corps.

After the first bomb struck, neighbors rushed to the site to rescue the wounded, Khan said. As they pulled bodies from the rubble, another bomb hit the area.

"The second bomb came while people were busy with relief work," Khan said. "Everything flew into the air, and I was thrown several yards away."

The army spokesman denied that civilians were killed in the strike. A Khyber administration official said a six-member panel made up of local officials and tribal elders had been formed to investigate the airstrike.

The chief of the Khyber administration, Shafeerullah Khan, said $125,000 in government funds would be set aside to compensate survivors and families of people killed in the airstrike.

"The army never takes action against innocent tribesmen," Khan said in a statement. "Security forces had received intelligence about the presence of militants in the area, and action was taken."

Reports of civilians killed during military operations carried out by Pakistani troops, fighter jets and helicopter gunships are rare, though journalists' lack of access to the tribal areas makes it difficult to find such cases. Pakistani officials say many civilian deaths related to the war against militants are caused by missiles fired by U.S. drones hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters seeking refuge in the tribal areas.

News of the airstrike in the Tirah Valley drew strong criticism from a leading Pakistani English-language daily newspaper, Dawn. The strike, an editorial in Tuesday's edition said, "reflects poorly on the security apparatus' intelligence-gathering capacity, and has the potential to erode the support the government currently enjoys in its battle against Taliban-inspired militancy."

alex.rodriguez

@latimes.com

Ali is a special correspondent.

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