Pakistani jets launched strikes on Taliban hideouts in the northwest on Thursday, killing at least 30 people according to security sources, in retaliation for attacks by the militants which have derailed peace talks.
The first raid confirmed by security officials came early Thursday when jets bombed several locations including a compound in the town of Mir Ali and surrounding parts of North Waziristan. “There are confirmed reports of 15 militants including foreigners killed in these airstrikes,” said a senior security official on condition of anonymity. Another official later confirmed that at least 16 Uzbeks were also killed during the raids on Mir Ali.
The first official, based in Peshawar, said more than five militants were killed in the Bara area of Khyber Agency when helicopters pounded four militant hideouts. “Airstrikes were carried out to target militant hideouts with precision,” the official said. “A huge cache of arms and ammunition has also been destroyed.”
A second strike targeted militants hiding and arms stockpiles in Khyber Agency who are suspected of bombing a cinema in Peshawar last week and killing an Army major on Tuesday, another security official said. A security official in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, said the air attack lasted more than an hour, while many local residents fled to safer areas.
The airstrikes and spiraling violence cast further doubt on a troubled peace process between the government and the insurgents just three weeks after talks began. After several rounds of talks, government mediators pulled out of scheduled dialogue with their Taliban counterparts on Monday amid outrage over the claimed execution of 23 kidnapped soldiers. A day earlier, a faction of the Islamist movement from Mohmand near the Afghan border had claimed they had killed the soldiers who were seized in the area in June 2010. On Thursday Pakistan delivered a formal protest to the Afghan government about the incident, which is believed to have occurred on Afghan soil.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said later Thursday that the talks were suspended because of the militant attacks but negotiators were still there to work for peace. “There are clear chances that dialogue process will once again come back on track. But negotiations and violent activities can’t go together,” he told reporters.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) had offered a ceasefire on Wednesday on condition that government forces stopped killing and arresting their members. But Khan said that “elements” were using the dialogue process to attack security forces, and the airstrikes were self defense.
“Some people were targeting security agencies in the disguise of the talks. We can’t continue with negotiations in this atmosphere. They kidnapped and slaughtered 23 soldiers just because they were patriots,” he said.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the start of talks on Jan. 29 to “give peace another chance” following a seven-year Taliban insurgency that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives. But a source in his office said Sharif, under pressure to avenge the Taliban killing spree, “issued orders to launch the airstrikes” after being briefed by military advisers.
Despite the new bloodshed, professor Ibrahim Khan, a Taliban peace negotiator, said on Thursday there was still a chance of a settlement.
A total of 93 people have been killed since the reconciliation effort was launched at the end of January, including the kidnapped soldiers, according to an AFP tally. The Taliban said 60 of their members had died before Thursday’s strikes. They have accused the Army of executing members while they are in custody.
As well as the execution of the kidnapped soldiers and other killings, the insurgents claimed a car bomb attack on a police bus in Karachi on Feb. 13 in which 12 officers died. The government has demanded a ceasefire as a condition to resume the peace talks.
The TTP has been waging a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007, often hitting military targets. Some observers have raised doubts about the ability of the central Taliban command to control all factions, including some opposed to peace negotiations. The Taliban’s demands include the nationwide imposition of shariah law, an end to U.S. drone strikes and the withdrawal of the Army from northwestern tribal regions—conditions unlikely to be met.