Pakistan air force 'killed scores of villagers'

Witnesses refute military claims that jet fighters fired on Islamist militants
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Dilla Baz Khan was pulling a woman from the rubble of an air raid when Pakistani jets screamed back into the valley for a second bombing run, killing scores of people in a village which locals say had been supportive of army offensives against militants along the Afghan border.

Mr Khan and other survivors said yesterday at least 68 villagers were killed in the weekend air strikes, sharply contradicting initial army accounts that the dead were Islamist militants. A local administration official said $125,000 (£81,000) had been paid in compensation to victims. The official declined to confirm how many of the dead were civilians but said Shafiullah Khan, the top official in Khyber, apologised to local tribesman and admitted the victims were "mostly" innocent villagers.

The accounts point to one of the most serious incidents of civilian casualties inflicted by Pakistan's military in the border region in recent years. The carnage is likely to damage efforts to get the backing of local tribesman for offensives against insurgents behind bombings in Pakistan, as well as attacks on international troops in Afghanistan.

Three witnesses interviewed yesterday in a hospital in the north-western city of Peshawar gave the first detailed account of the air raids, which took place on Saturday morning in the remote village of Sara Walla in the Khyber tribal agency.

They said most families in the village have sons in the security forces and it had a history of co-operating with the army. One said the owner of the house that was bombed initially, Hamid Khan, has two sons serving in the paramilitary Frontier Corps. "This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information," said Khanan Gul Khan, a Sara Walla resident. "This area has nothing to do with militants."

The first strike took place about 8.30am. Fighter jets returned as villagers tried to dig people from the rubble two hours later, said Dilla Baz Khan and the others. "We were about to pull out a lady from the rubble when another jet came and bombed us," said Mr Khan from the orthopedic ward of the Hayatabad medical complex, where he was being treated for a broken arm. "Then I lost consciousness."

He said an official from the Khyber administration had given him $220 compensation for the loss of four relatives, including his brother. "He said, 'We are sorry for this, and we pray for your early recovery'," Mr Khan added.

The administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said families of 71 victims had been compensated. Dawn, a respected English-language daily newspaper, reported that 60 villagers were killed.

An army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, on Monday denied any of the dead were civilians, saying the army had intelligence that militants were gathering at the site of the strike. Yesterday, he declined to comment further and directed enquires to the office of the political administration.

Talat Masood, a retired general, said the military had to be careful when choosing targets in tribal regions. "Whereas the intention may have been noble, the fact is that [these raids] did hit innocent people," he said. "This can easily cause support for the militants."