DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani fighter jets pounded militant positions overnight in the country’s northwest following a Taliban bombing campaign against security forces, military officials and residents said Tuesday. The strikes are likely to hamper the government’s efforts to hold peace talks with the militant group.
Also Tuesday, a roadside car bomb hit a bus of Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran, killing 20 and wounding over 30, in restive Baluchistan province, said a top security official.
There were conflicting claims about who was killed in the airstrikes which took place in North Waziristan, a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban as well as other militant groups.
A military official said the strikes targeted militants and killed 25 of them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But at least two residents reached by telephone in North Waziristan said civilians were among those killed in the airstrikes. They said many residents slept in the open out of fear their homes might be hit.
“How would the jet fighters know who is living where and who is a militant and who is a civilian in the dark of the night,” said Habib Dawar who lives in Mir Ali, one of the main towns in North Waziristan.
The area where airstrikes occurred is remote and dangerous for journalists to access, making it impossible to independently verify the conflicting casualty claims.
The overnight strikes came after two days of attacks claimed by the Pakistani Taliban that killed 34 security personnel. On Sunday, a bomb planted in a vehicle killed 26 troops inside an army compound in the northwest just before their convoy was to head into North Waziristan. Then on Monday, a suicide bomber killed 13 people including eight security personnel in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near the capital Islamabad.
The violence has put pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to show he’s doing something to address the violence that has plagued Pakistan for years. Sharif has repeatedly expressed his desire to negotiate with militants instead of using military force to subdue them, but so far the Pakistani Taliban have shown little desire to negotiate with Sharif’s government.
The Pakistani military in recent years has carried out several offensives against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. But airstrikes like the ones hitting North Waziristan late Monday and Tuesday morning are considered rare for that area.
Pakistani intelligence officials say the strike killed at least five fighters in the village of Hamzoni, while four others were killed in a nearby Tappi village. They said 13 people killed in a mosque near the town of Mir Ali were believed to be Uzbek fighters.
The officials said that Adnan Rasheed, a top commander of Tehreek-e-Taliban, which is the formal name of the Pakistani Taliban, narrowly escaped one of the strikes. The intelligence officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
But angry residents insisted that civilians were also among the dead. One resident, Yar Mohamad, said women and children were among those killed.
“If that continues, we will be forced to flee into Afghanistan,” she said.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, warned that they would be compelled to target the families of government and army officials if the authorities continued such strikes. He said no Taliban fighters were killed in the strikes.
Meanwhile, Baluchistan’s top security official Asad Gilani said a roadside car bomb hit a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims killing 20 people, including women, children and four paramilitary troops. He said the troops were escorting the Shiites’ convoy. He said 31, including women, children and members of the security forces, were wounded by the bomb and subsequent fire.
Police officer Mohammad Aslam says the bomber detonated explosives planted in a car along the road when the convoy of buses passed by in the Dren Garh area of Mastung district. Dren Garh is some 60 kilometers (36 miles) west of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.
Blame is likely to fall on Islamist militants, some of whom consider Shiites heretics and have claimed attacks on the sect in the past. Ethnic nationalist insurgents also operate in Baluchistan.
Also Tuesday, gunmen in a pair of attacks minutes apart struck two teams of polio workers in the southern city of Karachi, killing three members of the teams and wounding a fourth before fleeing, police said.
Police official Pir Mohammad Shah said two female and a male worker were killed in the attacks in Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province.
The vaccination campaign was cancelled following the attacks, said health official Zafar Ejaz.
No group has claimed responsibility but Pakistani militants have killed several polio workers and police protecting them in Karachi and elsewhere in recent months.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where the polio virus is still endemic. Militants oppose vaccination against polio and consider such campaigns a cover for spying. They also claim the vaccine is intended to make Muslim boys sterile.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Adil Jawad in Karachi and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.