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Ire grows over deadly Pakistan airstrike

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By Haq Nawaz Khan and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post staff writers
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 2:27 PM

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Public anger rose Tuesday over a weekend airstrike by Pakistan's military, which the military said targeted insurgents but which a government official and villagers said killed more than 70 civilians.

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The Saturday bombings hit the Khyber area of the rugged tribal region along the Afghan border, where Pakistani forces are battling Islamist insurgents. A senior government official, who did not have authorization to discuss the topic publicly, said in an interview Tuesday that the strike killed 71 civilians and no militants. He said the government had offered nearly $125,000 in compensation to the families of those killed or wounded.

Ire over the strike, which drew sharp criticism from tribal leaders and some Pakistani media, threatened to undercut support for the Pakistani army's U.S.-backed push against militants in the border region. Stepped-up offensives in the tribal areas, including Khyber, have boosted the army's image, and the military says it has purged the region of legions of fighters behind bloody attacks throughout Pakistan.

A military spokesman could not be reached for comment, but officials have said the strike was aimed at a militant gathering and did not kill civilians. One military intelligence official said in a telephone interview that "mostly militants" were killed. The tribal areas are off-limits to journalists, making independent confirmation of events there nearly impossible.

Though U.S. drone strikes against militants in the borderlands often spark criticism in Pakistan for killing civilians, such accusations against Pakistani forces are more rare. A Tuesday editorial in Dawn, an English-language newspaper, said the strike demonstrated a gap in the military's intelligence gathering and "strengthens the hands of the Taliban."

Villagers from the town of Sra Vela said that an initial bombing struck the house of a family that included members of a government paramilitary force. As people rushed to assist the wounded, jets dropped another bomb on the crowd, residents said. They said many of the dead were soldiers with the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary.

One member of that force, 25-year-old Tila Baz, said shrapnel from the bombing cut his face and broke his arm. Baz, who was interviewed from his hospital bed in the northwest city of Peshawar, said those killed had no links to insurgents.

"All hit by the jet bombardment were local innocent civilians, and no Taliban fighter . . . even exists in the village," said Baz, whose face bore purple wounds. "It is a barbaric act."

Ikramullah Khan Kokikhel, a village elder, said tribal leaders had met with government officials to demand an official inquiry into the bombing.

Brulliard reported from Islamabad.


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