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Pakistan airstrikes on Taliban hideouts kill 15

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Miranshah — Pakistani jets bombed suspected Taliban hideouts in a northwestern tribal district early Thursday, killing at least 15 people a day after the insurgents offered a ceasefire to resume troubled peace talks if the army stopped targeting them.

“There are confirmed reports of 15 militants including foreigners killed in these airstrikes,” a senior security official told AFP, adding that the attacks focused on the town of Mir Ali and surrounding areas of North Waziristan.

On Wednesday, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) said it was ready to observe a ceasefire to allow the resumption of peace talks, provided Pakistani security forces stopped killing and arresting them.

“Airstrikes were carried out to target militant hideouts with precision. A huge cache of arms and ammunition have also been destroyed,” the security official said.

Peace talks between the Taliban and the government, announced on January 29, stalled this week due to a recent surge in insurgent attacks and a claim by a Taliban faction on Sunday that it had killed 23 kidnapped soldiers.

Government mediators set a ceasefire as a precondition for another round of talks, while the Taliban complained that its members were being killed in custody.

A second security official told AFP on condition of anonymity that Thursday’s strikes were “in retaliation for recent Taliban attacks”.

As well as the execution of the kidnapped soldiers, the insurgents claimed a car bomb attack on a police bus in Karachi on February 13 in which 12 officers died.

Despite the new bloodshed, Professor Ibrahim Khan, a Taliban peace negotiator, told AFP that the chance of a settlement remained alive.

“The bad effects are very visible but even then we will continue our struggle for the establishment of peace,” he told AFP. “Negotiations are the only way. There is no other way.”

– Rising death toll –

A total of 93 people have been killed since the reconciliation effort was launched at the end of January, including the kidnapped soldiers, according to an AFP tally.

The Taliban said 60 of its members had died before Thursday’s strikes.

A third security official in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, told AFP that jet fighters began pounding targets around 12:30 am, with the attack continuing for more than an hour.

A militant compound jointly used by insurgent groups was also destroyed in the airstrikes, the second official said.

Residents in the area, known as a hideout for Taliban and Al-Qaeda members, said the compound caught fire after the attack and burned through the night.

A resident in the area who requested anonymity told AFP some of the residents and their families were seen moving to safer places after the airstrikes.

The TTP have been waging a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007, carrying out a number of bomb and gun attacks, often on military targets.

Militants killed an army major near the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday, and a soldier died in a separate border post attack the same day in lawless South Waziristan, security officials said.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the start of talks with the Taliban on January 29 to “give peace another chance” following a seven-year insurgency that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives.

Some observers have raised doubts about the ability of the central Taliban command to control all factions, including some opposed to negotiations.

The Taliban’s demands also include the nationwide imposition of sharia law, an end to US drone strikes and the withdrawal of the army from northwestern tribal regions — conditions unlikely to be met.

Pakistani troops have for years been battling homegrown insurgents in the tribal belt, which Washington considers the main hub of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan.

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