ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s military launched airstrikes in its restive tribal areas on Tuesday, killing 40 suspected militants, in an attempt to combat terrorist attacks that are escalating across the country.
Tribal elders, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal from militants, said the strikes appeared more accurate than previous such efforts.
The local elders said that the home of Adnan Rashid, a senior Taliban commander, was hit and his family members were injured, but that he escaped unhurt. Another strike, on al-Noor Mosque in the village of Essorhi, killed 15 people — all reportedly militants, according to the elders.
“So this time the army gunships and jet fighters are accurately targeting the militants,” one elder from the town of Mir Ali said in a phone interview.
The strikes, among the heaviest bombardments of the tribal areas in several years, were conducted in the aftermath of a suicide bombing Sunday that killed 20 Pakistani soldiers. On Monday, 13 people were killed in a blast at a market near army headquarters in Rawalpindi. And Tuesday, three people administering polio vaccinations were fatally shot in Karachi, and at least 20 Shiite pilgrims were killed when an explosion tore through their bus in the country’s southwest.
The military airstrikes began late Monday over a troubled area of North Waziristan, a hotbed for Pakistani and foreign militants near the Afghan border. According to local officials and the Reuters news service, it was the first time the military had carried out airstrikes in North Waziristan since a cease-fire deal with local Taliban leaders in 2007.
Military officials said those killed in the strikes included militants suspected of carrying out a bombing in September that killed 85 people at a church in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Although some of the elders interviewed said that many of those killed were Taliban militants, area residents said there also were numerous civilian casualties. They said they and their families were fleeing the area because they feared for their safety.
“Can you hear the noise of the gunships? They are just over our heads,” Haji Jamaluddin, a resident, told Reuters by phone. “Everyone in the village is running around with children and women, looking for a safe place to hide.”
The strikes, which followed smaller military operations in tribal areas in recent weeks, could be a sign that Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, plans to take a harder line against militants. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed him in late November to head the country’s nuclear-armed, 550,000-member military. The two men share a last name but are not related.
The prime minister has been pushing to hold peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, which has waged a decade-long insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives. But those talks have yet to materialize. In the meantime, former military officials say, the country’s top generals — faced with rising violence — have been pushing for more decisive action.
On Sunday, a suicide bomber struck next to a convoy of paramilitary soldiers at a security checkpoint in North Waziristan. The blast killed 20 soldiers and injured more than 30. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the attack was in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike in November that killed Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
The group also asserted responsibility for Monday’s blast in Rawalpindi. That attack, carried out by a suicide bomber on a bicycle, killed seven army personnel, two civilian army employees, three students and a shopkeeper.
“We feel that the government is neither serious, sincere nor powerful [enough] for peace talks,” Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, said in a statement. “If the government shows sincerity and seriousness, even now, we are ready to have peace negotiations.”
On Tuesday, at least 20 Shiite pilgrims riding in a bus were killed in a blast in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. The bus either struck a roadside bomb or was hit by a car packed with explosives, local officials said. The passengers were returning home to the provincial capital, Quetta, after attending a religious festival in southern Iran.
There was no assertion of responsibility, but sectarian tensions are on the rise across Pakistan. Prime Minister Sharif issued a one-sentence statement condemning the attack.
Local police were escorting the buses through the sparsely populated area, in response to recent threats against Shiites there. Several police officers were injured, said Asad Gilani, Baluchistan’s home secretary.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack on the polio workers. While a team of nurses and volunteers were attempting to vaccinate children on the outskirts of Karachi, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire. Two female polio workers and one police officer providing security were killed. One child was injured, reported Express News, a private Pakistani TV channel.
As a result of the attack, polio workers in the southern province of Sindh have at least temporarily suspended the vaccination campaign.
Last year, 83 new polio cases were reported in Pakistan, and the World Health Organization said Friday that Peshawar is the world’s “largest reservoir” of the virus.
But health officials who attempt to vaccinate children are increasingly coming under attack from Islamic militants.
Prime Minister Sharif did not directly comment on the military airstrikes Tuesday. While visiting injured soldiers in the hospital in Rawalpindi, Sharif said their deceased comrades had “rendered great sacrifices in the war against terrorism, and the nation is proud of them.”
Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.