Pakistani helicopter gunships attacked a suspected al-Qaida hideout in forest near the Afghan border Tuesday, killing up to 10 people and sparking anger among tribesmen who said the dead were woodcutters not terrorists.
The early morning raid in South Waziristan came as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan and as pressure grew on Pakistan to crack down on militants launching attacks across the frontier.
Pakistan's army said intelligence sources confirmed the presence of 25 to 30 militants, including four or five unidentified al-Qaida terrorists, occupying five compounds in the area of Zamzola a village about three kilometers (two miles) from the frontier.
Pakistani forces backed by Cobra gunships attacked them, destroying three of the compounds.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan reported eight militants dead and 10 wounded, none of them "high-value targets."
Anwar Ullah, who lives near Zamzola, told The Associated Press by telephone that five helicopters fired missiles at five homes. He said local tribesmen later retrieved 10 bodies and 10 wounded from the rubble. He claimed that the slain men were Afghan laborers hired by a tribal elder to cut wood.
About 600 tribesmen chanting slogans against U.S. President George W. Bush and Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf later protested the raid, blocking a highway with burning tires for two hours in the town of Tank about 100 miles (60 kilometers) north of Zamzola.
"They were not terrorists. They were only laborers," Niaz Quereshi, a local religious leader, said of the slain men.
Tuesday's raid ended a relative lull in violence on the Pakistan side of the border since the government signed a September peace deal with pro-Taliban militants in nearby North Waziristan. But critics say the deal has consolidated Taliban influence and given freer rein for militants to venture into Afghanistan where violence has escalated sharply.
In a sign that Pakistan was getting tougher again, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf told a meeting of top generals Tuesday it would continue efforts to control extremism and terrorism through political means, but would not tolerate any illegal border-crossing.
"Any hideout or sanctuary being used by terrorists or miscreants shall be knocked out wherever it is found," a military statement quoted Musharraf as saying, reports AP.
As Gates visited Kabul and held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, American military officials said Taliban fighters were exploiting the North Waziristan deal to dramatically increase attacks on U.S. and allied forces in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan.
A U.S. military intelligence officer said since the deal took effect Sept. 5, the number of attacks in the border area of Afghanistan had grown by 300 percent although one condition of the deal is for militants to refrain from such attacks. Pakistan was also accused of turning a blind eye to infiltration by Taliban fighters at a border control point.
Pakistan, a former Taliban supporter but now a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, says it has 80,000 troops policing the border and has arrested hundreds of al-Qaida suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.