Pakistan Airstrike Kills 71 Civilians: Official

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Associated Press

Pakistan Airstrike Kills 71 Civilians: Official

by
Riaz Khan and Zarar Khan

Pakistani tribal elders gathered on Monday, April 12, 2010 in Khyber, Pakistan to discuss the situation raised after Pakistan army jets's air strikes on alleged suspected insurgents in Pakistani tribal area along Afghanistan border. More than 200,000 people have fled Pakistan's latest offensive against Taliban militants in the northwest, the United Nations said Monday, as fresh clashes in the remote region killed 41 insurgents and two soldiers. (AP Photo/Qazi Rauf)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Up to 71 civilians were killed in a weekend
strike by Pakistani jets near the Afghan border, survivors and a
government official said Tuesday — a rare confirmation of civilian
casualties that risks undercutting public support for the fight against
militants.

The government official, who spoke on condition of
anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said authorities
had already handed out the equivalent of $125,000 in compensation to
families of the victims in a remote village in the Khyber tribal area.

Also
Tuesday, a village elder claimed 13 civilians had been killed in U.S.
missile strike on Monday night elsewhere in the northwest, contesting
accounts by Pakistani security officials that four militants were
killed.

Pakistan's tribal regions are largely out of bounds for
reporters and dangerous to visit because of the likelihood of being
abducted by militants, who still control much of the area, making it
very difficult to verify casualty figures.

Army spokesman Maj.
Gen. Athar Abbas on Monday denied that any of the dead in the Pakistani
air force attack were civilians, saying the army had intelligence that
militants were gathering at the site of the strike. The victims were
initially reported to be suspected militants. The military regularly
reports killing scores of militants in airstrikes in the northwest, but
rarely says it is responsible for civilian deaths.

The Pakistani
army, under heavy pressure from the United States, has moved forcefully
against Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the northwest over the last
18 months. The insurgents have been blamed for attacks on international
troops across the border in Afghanistan as well as scores of attacks
within Pakistan.

Pakistani politicians have either supported the
operations or avoiding criticizing them, something of a change from
several years ago when many backed negotiations with the insurgents.
But civilian casualties threaten to undermine support for the
offensives, both in the northwest and in the rest of Pakistan, where
many people do not like the idea of the army being deployed against
fellow Muslims.

The offensives have displaced more than 1 million
people, and one newspaper said Tuesday that the deaths of innocents
would strengthen support for the Taliban.

Two survivors
interviewed Tuesday in a hospital in the main northwestern city of
Peshawar gave the first detailed account of the attack, which took
place Saturday morning.

They said most of the victims were killed
when they were trying to rescue people trapped by an earlier strike on
the house of a village elder.

"This house was bombed on
absolutely wrong information," said Khanan Gul Khan, a resident of the
village who was visiting a relative in the hospital. "This area has
nothing to do with militants."

Khan said many of the families in
the village, Sara Walla, had sons serving in the security forces and
that it had a history of cooperating with the army. He said the owner
of the house that was bombed initially, Hamid Khan, had two sons
serving in the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

He said 68 people
were killed and many more wounded. The political official said Monday
that the families of 71 victims had been compensated, but did not
identify them.

Dilla Baz Khan suffered a fractured arm in the second attack, which he said came around two hours after the first one.

"We
were about to pull out a lady from the rubble when another jet came and
bombed us," he said from the orthopedic ward of the Hayatabad medical
complex in Peshawar. "Then I lost consciousness."

He said an
official from the Khyber political administration visited him Monday
and gave him $220 for the loss of four relatives, including his
brother. "He said we are sorry for this, and we pray for your early
recovery," he said.

Brief reports of significant civilian
casualties in the strike Saturday have appeared in the local media in
recent days, but have not attracted much attention or criticism. The
army, while nominally under civilian control, is the most powerful
institution in the country.

An editorial Tuesday in Dawn, a
respected English-language daily, said it was clear that the dead had
no links to the militants and that the incident "strengthens the hands
of the Taliban." It said around 60 people were killed.

The United
States also regularly attacks al-Qaida and Taliban targets in northwest
Pakistan with missiles fired from unmanned drones. American officials
do not acknowledge being behind the attacks, which are credited with
killing scores of insurgents. Critics say those attacks also regularly
claim civilian lives.

Pakistan intelligence officials, speaking
on customary condition of anonymity, said a missile attack late Monday
close to the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan killed four
suspected militants. Noor Gul, a resident in the village, disputed
that, saying 13 civilians, including two children, were killed.

Zarar Khan reported from Islamabad. Associated Press Writers Chris Brummitt in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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