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Pakistan strikes militant hideouts as talks stall

Thursday - 2/20/2014, 11:40am  ET

REBECCA SANTANA
Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistani air force jets bombed militant hideouts in the country's volatile northwest, officials said Thursday, after government efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban broke down earlier this week.

A Pakistani military official and two intelligence officers said 15 suspected militants were believed to have been killed in the airstrikes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has favored peace talks over military action to end the bloodshed in the northwest. Those efforts made limited progress this month when a government-appointed committee met with representatives nominated by the militants.

But negotiations were troubled from the start as militant attacks continued. A deadly bombing claimed by the Pakistan Taliban last week killed 12 police officers in the port city of Karachi. A faction of the Taliban also claimed they killed 23 soldiers on Sunday in reprisal for the killing of some of their members. After that, government negotiators told the prime minister they couldn't continue the talks unless the militants renounced violence.

The Pakistani Taliban said Wednesday they would agree to a cease-fire only if government negotiators could assure them there would be no more killings of their members.

The airstrikes late Wednesday hit villages in the North Waziristan tribal region, a hotbed of militant activity that borders Afghanistan to the west. Airstrikes Thursday struck the Khyber tribal region. The 15 dead were killed in North Waziristan. A security official said there were reports of militants also killed in Khyber but offered no details.

The military official said a supply of arms, ammunition and explosives also were destroyed. Another official said militant hideouts of foreign Uzbek and Tajik fighters were among the locations targeted in North Waziristan.

Akhtar Khan, who lives in North Waziristan near where the strikes took place, said he and others woke to the booming sound of jets dropping bombs.

The prime minister has not said whether he'll stop pursuing the negotiations. It wasn't immediately clear whether the airstrikes -- a rarity in the region -- were the precursor of a wide-scale military operation.

Pursuing military operations comes with its own risks. Any major operation in North Waziristan, the last area in the northwest where the Pakistani military has not moved aggressively against the militants, likely would cause a backlash of attacks in other parts of Pakistan.

But there are signs that Sharif's administration may be losing patience. Pakistani Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed was blunt in his criticism of the militants late Wednesday, saying that even archrival India treated prisoners better.

The Pakistani government Thursday also lashed out at neighboring Afghanistan, saying that the 23 Frontier Corps soldiers killed by the militants were in Afghan territory when they died.

"Pakistan has conveyed its strong protest and serious concern to the Afghan government on the brutal murder of 23 FC personnel inside the Afghan territory," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. The soldiers were taken to Afghanistan after they were taken hostage in 2010, said Tasnim Aslam, a spokeswoman for the ministry.

In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said there was no evidence the soldiers were killed on Afghan soil. Terrorists and extremists on both sides of the border have been "using our territories against us," Faizi said.

"Pakistan and Afghanistan should fight terrorists jointly in order to avoid such attacks and incidents from happening," he said.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan routinely accuse the other of allowing militants to operate on each other's soil.

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Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Cassandra Vinograd in Kabul contributed to this report.


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