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Pak jets hit Taliban positions

- 15 killed as air force carries out aerial strikes for the first time

Peshawar/Dera Ismail Khan (Pakistan), Jan. 21 (Reuters): Pakistan fighter jets bombed suspected Taliban hideouts in a tribal area on the Afghan border today killing at least 15 people, military sources and residents said, after a wave of insurgent attacks against security forces.

It was the first time the air force has resorted to aerial strikes in the volatile region since it struck a ceasefire agreement with local Taliban chiefs in 2007. Aerial strikes also took place in the nearby tribal region of Kurram.

“Can you hear the noise of the gunships? They are just over our heads,” resident Haji Jamaludin told Reuters by telephone. “Everyone in the village is running around with children and women looking for a safe place to hide.”

Sparking speculation that a military operation was imminent, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cancelled his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Sunday following a Taliban attack on an army convoy in which 20 soldiers were killed.

Sharif has been under pressure from the US and hawks within the Pakistani army to take tougher military action against Taliban militants. The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the central government in Islamabad and impose strict Islamic rule in the nuclear armed South Asian nation.

The death of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a November drone strike has further enraged the Taliban, with its new leader, Mullah Fazlullah, vowing to step up his campaign. “We strongly condemn this cowardly act which they (Pakistan army) carried out under cover of darkness, targeting sleeping people,” said Pakistan Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.

“If you people target innocent people in their homes, we will target you in your homes in Islamabad too.”

Military officials said fighter jets were targeting only militant positions North Waziristan, a lawless mountainous region where many al Qaida-linked militants are based, but locals said there were numerous civilian casualties.

Villagers described scenes of panic as fighter jets and helicopter gunships pounded the Mir Ali area, sending villagers fleeing from their homes into the cold to hide.

There was no official word on civilian casualties and residents gave different numbers. Tribal elders said between 15 and 24 people were killed. A Taliban source put the death toll at 27. Military sources in Islamabad said 15 militants were killed.

Pilgrims attacked

A bomb ripped through a bus full of Shia pilgrims in western Pakistan and killed at least 22 people today, police said.

The bomb exploded near a bus carrying pilgrims returning from neighouring Iran to their home city of Quetta in Pakistan, officials said. At least 20 people were wounded, said the police. Many of the victims were women and children.

 
 
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