Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 | 12:31 p.m.
ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani air force pounded militant hide-outs near the Afghan border on Tuesday, killing dozens of people following deadly bombings against security forces in recent days.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed 20 Shiite pilgrims in a separatist province, and gunmen opened fire on workers administering polio vaccinations, killing three people.
The Pakistani government has come under heavy pressure to aggressively tackle a surge in militant violence instead of solely relying on efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban-led insurgents.
The airstrikes in North Waziristan came after the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for a bomb that killed 26 soldiers Sunday when it tore through a military convoy inside an army compound in the nearby Bannu area. A suicide bomber also killed 13 people, including eight security personnel, Monday in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital of Islamabad.
The Pakistani military in recent years has carried out several offensives against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, but North Waziristan has largely been spared. The U.S. has repeatedly struck the area with drone strikes targeting militant commanders.
There were conflicting claims about who was killed in the airstrikes, which began late Monday and continued into early Tuesday. A military official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said they killed 40 insurgents, but two residents said civilians were among the dead.
Habib Dawar, who lives in Mir Ali, one of the towns that was struck, said many residents sleep in the open out of fear their homes might be hit.
"How would the jet fighters know who is living where and who is a militant and who is a civilian in the dark of the night," he said.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long supported a policy of negotiating with militants instead of using military force to subdue them, but so far the Pakistani Taliban have shown little desire to negotiate with his government. Most of the discussion about whether to hold peace talks or not has been centered around groups like the Pakistani Taliban that operate in the northwest. Little mention has been made of whether to talk with sectarian groups who operate in areas like Baluchistan. The government also has not outlined areas where it would be willing to compromise.
"The government does not have any strategy at all whether to talk or to fight," said Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst. "The army is very, very frustrated at this point. They are under attack and the government has basically no clear strategy."
Amid the criticism, Sharif cancelled a planned trip to Davos, Switzerland, this week to attend the World Economic Forum, and the prime minister visited a military hospital to talk to those wounded in the Bannu and Rawalpindi explosions.
Sharif also chaired a meeting Monday to discuss the government's draft Internal Security Policy, a much-discussed proposal that is meant to address the security problems but has not been made public.
The Pakistani Taliban said earlier this week that they would be interested in peace talks but only if the government proved it was sincere and had enough "power," a reference to the perception that the army wields the real power in Pakistan. Critics contend this is just another attempt at obfuscation by a group with a track record of using negotiations as a way to gather their strength.
Under its new army chief Raheel Sharif the Pakistani military has said nothing about the peace talks. But analysts say attacks like the ones against troops Sunday and Monday has had a detrimental effect on the military.
"I think there must be a huge loss of morale for the troops that also must be kept in mind," said Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier and former security official in the tribal regions.
For their part, the militants seem intent on continuing their assault. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, warned Tuesday that they would target the families of government and army officials if the authorities continued such airstrikes.
Sectarian violence also has been rising in Baluchistan. A car bomb struck a bus filled with Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran, killing 20 people and wounding two dozen, police officer Mohammad Aslam said. Nobody claimed responsibility for that attack, but suspicion fell on Sunni Islamic militants who consider Shiites heretics and have claimed attacks on the sect in the past.
Gunmen also opened fire on two teams of polio workers in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi, killing three members of the teams and wounding a fourth before fleeing. Militants have killed more than 30 polio workers and police protecting them in recent years.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where the polio virus is still endemic. Militants oppose vaccinations against polio and consider such campaigns a cover for spying. The polio vaccination campaign is viewed suspiciously by many people in Pakistan after a fake vaccination effort was used by the CIA to try to catch Osama bin Laden. Many militants also claim the vaccine is intended to make Muslim boys sterile.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Adil Jawad in Karachi and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.