Pakistan Army helicopters fired missiles killing three militants on Sunday, officials said, in apparent retaliation for a Taliban bomb attack that killed 20 soldiers in the restive northwest.
The helicopters fired at a road in the village of Musaki situated in the same tribal region as the bombing earlier Sunday, intelligence and civil administration officials said. One of the missiles struck a nearby house, killing a five-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy, a local administration official added, although security officials could not confirm the civilian casualties.
The bombing earlier Sunday, claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, killed 20 soldiers and wounded 30 when it ripped through a military convoy. The attack, one of the deadliest to hit Pakistani security forces in recent years, happened in the city of Bannu near the North Waziristan tribal region which is a stronghold of militants linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
“A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device caused the blast,” said a senior military official, adding the exact circumstances were unclear. An official statement said 20 soldiers were killed and 30 injured in the attack, which hit one of the vehicles in the convoy at 8:45 a.m. The convoy was about to leave for the town of Razmak in North Waziristan when the blast hit one of the civilian vehicles hired to move troops.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahidullah Shahid claimed responsibility for the convoy bombing. “It was part of our fight against a secular system,” he said by telephone from an undisclosed location. “We will carry out more such attacks in future,” he said, adding the Taliban were seeking revenge for the deaths of their former chief Hakimullah Mehsud and deputy Waliur Rehman—both killed in U.S. drone attacks.
The Taliban vowed they would not engage in any dialogue with the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif following the death of Mehsud. But Shahid said on Sunday the group “is ready for meaningful negotiations despite facing huge leadership losses, if the government proves its authority and sincerity” by halting drone attacks and withdrawing troops from tribal areas.
Pakistani troops have for years been battling the Taliban and other homegrown insurgents in the tribal belt next to the Afghan border, which Washington considers the main hub of militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan. The Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi came under attack in 2009, while major naval and air force bases have also been targeted in battles that have lasted for several hours.
A senior Pakistani general was killed in a blast last September along with two other soldiers in an attack claimed by the Taliban. In May 2011, 89 paramilitary troops were killed in an attack at a military academy in the northwestern town of Charsadda.
Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said recent assaults on the Army were “testing the patience of the military” and were “extremely demoralizing.”
The civilian government led by Nawaz Sharif, who came to power after elections last year, has said it is seeking talks with the Taliban. But so far little progress has been seen and terror attacks rose 20 percent in 2013 according to the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
Masood said the government’s policy was creating frustration within the Army. “It is becoming so evident to people that the government is so ineffective and paralyzed and has no policy or strategy, while the Army’s hands are tied and it is being targeted and not being allowed to take action.”