Pakistan fighting kills 250 as civilians flee

Pakistani jets pounded militant hideouts near a troubled tribal town for the third day on Tuesday as officials said about 250 people had died in some of the heaviest clashes since 2001.

The fighting has forced thousands to flee from Mir Ali, a town in the lawless North Waziristan district, which President Pervez Musharraf has previously pinpointed as a den of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

Residents said dozens of people, including women and children, were killed in the latest air strikes in the rugged region bordering Afghanistan, but security officials insisted the dead were all Islamist fighters.

The unrest puts extra pressure on military ruler Musharraf—a key ally in the United States-led war on terror—as he waits for the Supreme Court to ratify his victory in a presidential poll.

Chief military spokesperson Major General Waheed Arshad said at least 150 militants and 45 soldiers had been killed in battles that first erupted on Sunday after pro-Taliban rebels ambushed an army convoy.

Another two troops died in a roadside bombing on Tuesday, a statement said.

“There were militant hideouts in the area near Mir Ali, aircraft targeted these hideouts on Tuesday but I don’t have the number of casualties from that,” Arshad said.

Security officials in the north-western city of Peshawar said another 50 militants were killed in Tuesday’s air strikes and a similar number were injured.

Residents, however, said bombs dropped by fighter jets hit the main bazaar in Khedar Khel, a village near Mir Ali.

“About 50 people, including women and children, have died in the bombing,” resident Noor Mohammad (45) told Agence France-Presse by telephone.

“The number of injured is even more.”

Most of the 50 000 inhabitants of Mir Ali had fled after more than 50 houses were damaged and the army placed the town under virtual curfew, residents said.

“Our homes have been damaged severely, most of the families have migrated to relatives’ homes in neighbouring towns,” tribesman Faridullah Khan said as military helicopters circled overhead.

Desperate locals used mosque loudspeakers to beg the military not to fire at their homes, tribal elder Malik Iqbal Khan said.

Army spokesperson Arshad said that tribal elders had called a council, or jirga, involving tribesmen, militant representatives and the local administration in a bid to halt the violence.

But the military indicated that it was in no mood to compromise.

“The army is fighting well-trained militants. There are linkages with Afghanistan. Many of them are getting money and weapons from across the border,” Arshad said.

A Pakistani security official said the militants involved had the “latest weaponry and lots of money” from across the porous border.

They were also “in contact with members of a hostile country in Afghanistan”—an apparent reference to Pakistan’s long-term nuclear-armed rival India, its neighbour on the eastern side, the official added.

Pakistan has become increasingly convinced that India has a hand in a wave of violence that erupted after Pakistani security forces besieged and then raided the al-Qaeda-linked Red Mosque in Islamabad in July.

Bin Laden has urged militants to avenge the storming of the mosque, which killed about 100 people.

In the latest violence, 17 people were injured when a bomb exploded in a music shop in Peshawar on Tuesday, police said.

The fighting in the last three days is some of the bloodiest since Musharraf pushed thousands of troops into the tribal zone to tackle militants who fled into Pakistan after the US-led invasion to topple the Taliban regime.

Pro-Taliban militants are also holding more than 200 Pakistani soldiers in nearby South Waziristan district since abducting them in late August.—AFP


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