- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | Dilla Baz Khan was pulling a woman from the rubble of an air raid when Pakistani jets screamed back into the valley for a second bombing run, killing scores of people in a village locals say had been supportive of army offensives against militants along the Afghan border.

Mr. Khan and other survivors said Tuesday at least 68 villagers were killed in the weekend air strikes, sharply contradicting initial army accounts that the dead were Islamist militants. A local administration official said $125,000 had been paid in compensation to victims.

The official declined to say how many of the dead were civilians. but Shafiullah Khan, the top official in Khyber, apologized to local tribesman and said the victims were “mostly” innocent villagers.

The accounts point to one of the most serious incidents of civilian casualties inflicted by Pakistan’s military in the border region in recent years. The carnage is likely to hurt efforts to get the backing of local tribesman for offensives against insurgents behind bloody bombings in Pakistan, as well as attacks on international troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Elsewhere in the northwest, a village elder claimed 13 civilians were killed in the latest U.S. missile strike there, contesting accounts by Pakistani security officials that four militants died in the attack in North Waziristan on Monday night.

The Pakistani army has carried out a series of offensives against the Taliban and al Qaeda in the northwest over the last 18 months that have succeeded in pushing them back in some areas and won praise from the United States and the nuclear-armed nation’s other Western backers.

Pakistani politicians have either supported the operations or avoided criticizing them — a change from several years ago when many backed negotiations with the insurgents. The public also has broadly supported the fight, which Washington says is vital for its efforts to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But accounts of civilian casualties could cut away at that support in a country where unease at the idea of the army being deployed against fellow Muslims and countrymen is never far from the surface and anti-American sentiment runs rife.

The Pakistani military regularly claims to kill many militants in air strikes, shelling and ground operations in the northwest, but rarely mentions civilian deaths. It is unclear whether that is because such deaths do not occur, or simply because the army does not report them.

Independent accounts of army operations in the tribal regions are extremely rare. The area is largely out of bounds for reporters and highly dangerous to visit because of the likelihood of being abducted by militants, who still control much of the area.

Three witnesses interviewed Tuesday in a hospital in the main northwestern city of Peshawar gave the first detailed account of the air raids, which took place Saturday morning in the remote village of Sara Walla in the Khyber tribal agency.

They said most families in the village have sons in the security forces and it had a history of cooperating with the army. They said the owner of the house that was bombed initially, Hamid Khan, has two sons serving in the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

“This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information,” said Khanan Gul Khan, a Sara Walla resident who was visiting a relative in the hospital. “This area has nothing to do with militants.”

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