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.
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)
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.