ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani jets pounded insurgent hideouts in the country’s northwest early Sunday, killing dozens of militants in an aggressive response targeting those believed responsible for a five-hour siege of the Karachi airport a week ago, officials said.
The Pakistani government has been under pressure to combat the resilient insurgency that has plagued the country for years after the shocking attack June 8 on its busiest airport, which left 26 people and 10 assailants dead. Government efforts that started months ago to negotiate with the militants appeared to be going nowhere, and the airport violence has made the talks even less likely to succeed.
There were conflicting accounts of how many people were killed in the airstrikes in the North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan. The military said in a statement that over 50 militants were killed, although intelligence officials earlier put the toll as high as 100.
“There were confirmed reports of presence of foreign and local terrorists in these hideouts who were linked in planning the Karachi airport attack,” the military said.
The area where the strikes occurred is remote and dangerous for journalists, making it impossible to independently verify the accounts.
Residents in North Waziristan said they were woken up after midnight to the sound of jets roaring overhead but said the strikes happened in a remote mountainous area.
“All the family members gathered in the yard in fear,” said one local resident, Tawab Khan, from the village of Boyapul, about eight kilometers (five miles) from where the airstrikes hit. “We could hear big bangs but they didn’t come from very close to our area.”
The military said most of the dead were Uzbeks. Uzbek militants have long based themselves in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas as do a plethora of other armed groups such as al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network – a Taliban affiliated group.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, along with the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the airport attack in what was a rare instance of the group striking within Pakistan. The militant group was formed in 1991 to overthrow the Uzbek government and install an Islamic caliphate there but later expanded that goal to include all of Central Asia. The organization has attacked U.S. and NATO targets in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani airstrikes targeted eight militant hideouts, two intelligence officials said.
One of those killed was Abu Abdul Rehman al-Maani, believed to have helped orchestrate the airport siege, two other officials said. When the jets struck, the militants had been gathering to discuss a deadline given by authorities for them to leave the area, two of the Pakistani officials said.
All the officials did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Sunday’s airstrikes were the second against militants in the northwest this week. On Tuesday, Pakistani jets targeted nine hideouts in the Tirah Valley, where the military said 25 suspected militants were killed, but the information could not be independently verified. The area is part of the lawless terrain along the Afghan border, which is home to a mix of local militants and al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters.
Missiles from U.S. drones also hit North Waziristan last week, killing at least 13 suspected insurgents. The strikes marked the resumption of the CIA-led program after a nearly six-month break.
The strikes were swiftly condemned by the Pakistani government, although it routinely does so even when they target armed groups at war with the state. It was not clear of the drone strike were related to the airport attack.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected last year in part for promising to end the years of militant violence through negotiations instead of military operations. But only one round of direct talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban has taken place, and the efforts have floundered in recent weeks. Now the question is whether Sharif will authorize a much more aggressive military operation.
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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