Public angered over Pakistani airstrike after reports of 71 civilian deaths

By Haq Nawaz Khan and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post staff writers
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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

The Saturday bombings occurred in the Khyber area of the rugged tribal region along the Afghan border, where Pakistani forces are battling Islamist insurgents. A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter 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 outlets, threatened to undercut support for the Pakistani army's U.S.-backed push against militants in the border region.

A military spokesman could not be reached for comment, but officials have said that 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.

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

Residents of the town of Sra Vela said a bomb 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 Frontier Constabulary.

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

Khan is a special correspondent. Brulliard reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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