Civilian deaths in anti-Taliban air raid stoke anger in Pakistan's lawless northwest

Villagers in Pakistan's lawless northwest mourn women and children killed in war on militants

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 11:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 11:27pm


When Pakistani air force jets rained down missiles on a village in the country's violence-wracked northwest last week, it was described as yet another victory over Taliban insurgents in an ongoing military offensive.

Now an account has emerged of the killing of dozens of women and children, sparking anger over rising civilian casualties and fears that a fresh generation of radicals is being created.

"Today early morning 35 fleeing terrorists were killed through aerial strikes in Shawal Valley." That was how the military's information wing chose to describe the July 16 incident.

The terse press statement was among regular updates by the army since the operation in the North Waziristan tribal district, aimed at clearing Taliban strongholds, began in mid-June.

Almost 500 "militants" are said to have been killed in the campaign, which has been enthusiastically backed by political parties and media, who see it as a means of tackling a decade-long Islamist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.

But the official toll has been impossible to verify, raising questions on the true human cost.

According to multiple accounts, 37 civilians were killed in Thursday's attack, including 20 women and 10 children.

While villagers grieve, the incident has become a focus of rising anger among tribesmen who have fled to border towns inside Pakistan, and who threaten to march on Islamabad if the operation does not end.

The bombardment in the Shawal Valley began just before 1am, lighting up the sky as residents of Zoi Saidgai village ate pre-dawn Ramadan meals.

"It continued for hours, targeting 11 houses," Malik Mirzal Khan, an elder who lost his daughter and brother in the strikes, said.

"A single bomb dropped from the plane blew up two mud houses and the explosions could be heard 30km away," Khan, a member of a peace council that attempted to avert the offensive before it began, said.

"My 13-year-old daughter, brother, his wife and two of his kids were killed," he said.

The rest "were not local or foreign militants, but innocent civilians who were killed. There were men, women, boys and girls. Those seven men who died were never involved in militancy."

Noor Wali Khan, 27, a truck driver, lost his mother and two-sisters-in-law when his house was bombed. His brother and father are seriously wounded.

Both men's accounts were backed up by others, but the military has refused to comment on the matter.

A senior security official has said those who were killed had plenty of warning to evacuate.

"If a terrorist is living with his family and does not abandon them even during the time of operation and we have solid ground intelligence about the terrorist and we target his hideout, what would you call it, collateral damage or what?" the source asked. Khan, the village elder, said his community was never informed it would be a target.

"In the meetings with military and civil officials, we had been assured to stay home as our areas were declared safe and free from militant control," he said.

"America is our enemy, but they have never taken such cruel action against us as that we witnessed from the Pakistani government, our own country."