Source AP ©

Tribal elder accuses Pakistani army of killing 'innocent people'

Dozens of civilians were killed by Pakistan’s army near the Afghan army, a prominent tribal elder said, as the military blamed Islamic militants for sheltering and opening fire from villagers' homes.

At least 50 people were killed Tuesday when jets and helicopter gunships targeted suspected militant positions in Epi village in North Waziristan, pushing the death toll in fighting since the weekend to 250. Witnesses said the village bazaar was bombed.

It is the deadliest spate of violence since late 2001 when Pakistan first sent its troops into its semiautonomous tribal regions in support of the U.S.-led war against Taliban and al-Qaida. The army says nearly 50 soldiers were among the dead.

Maulana Nek Zaman, a local lawmaker for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a hard-line religious party, accused the army of killing innocents in the airstrikes.

"We know that the army killed 55 innocent people, and they included women and children," Zaman told The Associated Press. "We know it because we buried them."

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said there were reports of civilian casualties - he did not say how many may have died - but blamed militants for opening fire on security forces from villagers' dwellings, making them legitimate targets.

He said the estimated 200 dead militants included about 50 foreigners, including 25 Uzbeks, some Arabs, Afghans and Tajik fighters.

"The basic fault lies with the militants. They used these houses for firing on security forces," Arshad told the AP. "Obviously when somebody fires on troops it becomes a legitimate target to be engaged. When engaged, the people who live there also suffer casualties."

Arshad said that there had been between 600 or 700 militants in the area of the fighting, near the town of Mir Ali, about four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Epi.

The clashes marked an escalation in the violence that has troubled Pakistan's tribal regions since July when President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered an assault on the pro-Taliban Red Mosque in Islamabad. That operation claimed more than 100 lives, mostly of militants.

Since then, more than 1,000 people have died in suicide attacks, bombings and clashes in a little over three months, fanning domestic opposition to the country's close alliance with the United States.

Zaman was among tribal leaders who helped broker a controversial peace deal last year between the Pakistan government and the militants in North Waziristan to contain violence.

U.S. officials were later critical of the agreement, claiming it granted a safe haven to al-Qaida and a rear base for Taliban fighters to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan. The deal collapsed in July when Pakistan's army redeployed to key checkpoints in North Waziristan.

Zaman said he and other tribal elders were in touch with the army and were also trying to contact the militants for a new cease-fire.

Thousands of displaced residents, sheltering in the region's main town, Miran Shah, remained too scared to return home Thursday.

A roadside bomb on Thursday exploded near a military convoy about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Miran Shah, wounding two soldiers, a local security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Elsewhere in northwestern Pakistan, a bomb exploded in front of a barber shop in Karak, killing the shopowner, said town mayor Rehmat Salam Khattak. Hours earlier, another bomb damaged two music shops.

In a Taliban-style campaign, Islamic militants in the conservative northwest have warned barbers not to shave customers and threatened to close down businesses selling music CDs and cassettes. The hard-liners consider both practices offensive to Islam.

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