| Children flee Bannu, near Peshawar, on Tuesday. (AP)
Miranshah (Pakistan), Oct. 9 (Reuters): Pakistani warplanes today pounded militant positions in North Waziristan, as fighting raged for a fourth day in a tribal region known as an al Qaida and Taliban stronghold, an army spokesman said.
There has been intense fighting since Saturday night around the town of Mir Ali, and nearly 200 people had been killed before today’s air strike.
“Aircraft were used to attack militants positions near Mir Ali this afternoon,” military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.
Thousands of families were fleeing the town of 50,000 and outlying villages, making their way on foot, in tractor trailers and cars.
Arshad had no details of casualties from today’s air strike, though residents and a security official in North Waziristan put the number of people killed at close to 50.
Air strikes earlier destroyed most houses around Essori, a village near Mir Ali where most of the fighting was concentrated. “We don’t have any place to live,” said villager Mohammad Anwar. “We have sent our children to other areas because they are scared the bombing could start again.” The military had put the death toll from the three days of fighting at 150 militants, and 45 soldiers.
Whereas the army has often used missile-firing helicopter gunships to attack militant targets in the past, the use of warplanes in the last few days was a new development.
The latest clashes began after militants ambushed a military convoy near Mir Ali, and casualties mounted as the army struck back using ground troops, artillery, helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
Sher Khan, a resident of Mir Ali, said nearly 90 per cent of families in the town had fled, leaving behind a few men to guard their belongings. “The main bazaar of Mir Ali is sealed by the army,” Khan said. “All shops are closed. We have nothing to eat. That’s why I have sent my family to Bannu.”
Lying at the gateway to Waziristan, the North West Frontier town of Bannu has suffered plenty of militancy itself. In neighbouring South Waziristan militants have been holding about 225 soldiers since the end of August.
Violence has surged in the lawless Waziristan region since militants scrapped a peace deal with authorities in July. Attacks by suicide bombers have become commonplace, especially after the army stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July.