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Pakistani jets kill civilians: villagers

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Several days after Pakistani fighter jets killed scores near the Afghan border, villages told Reuters on Tuesday that all casualties were civilians.

Military officials, however, said the 55 killed in Saturday’s attack on the remote village of Saravilla in the Khyber region were militants.

“There were no militants,” Ikramullah Khan Kokikhel, a tribal elder from Saravilla, told Reuters. “It was a house of a tribesman whose three sons are serving as (government) military men.”

Fighter jets first attacked the house Saturday morning. When residents arrived to remove bodies from the rubble, the jets attacked again, witnesses said.

“It’s cruelty. We want a court martial of those who were behind this loss,” said Kokikhel. Zahir Noor, a villager from Saravilla, said there were bunkers around the village, but they were for defense against the militants.

“We have opposed them openly and never allow them in our territory,” he said.

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The senior government official in the region, Shafeerullah Wazir, agreed most of the dead were not militants.

“We believe that the information about the presence of militants in this locality was incorrect,” he told a tribal gathering in Peshawar, the major city that borders the Khyber region. “We’re investigating it.”

He apologized on behalf of the government and said he regretted the loss of life.

Such a large number of civilian casualties could be a blow to the government’s efforts to win over the tribal population from the Taliban, an effort the government says has been largely successful.

The military denied civilians were killed.

“The militants had built fortified bunkers and their hideouts were struck after we got ground confirmation by intelligence officials that they were present in their hideouts,” a military official said on Sunday. He said 35 militants were killed

Pakistan has recently stepped up offensives in Khyber and neighboring Orakzai against militants, who fled military sweeps in the Taliban strongholds of Swat, South Waziristan and Bajaur last year.

Khyber is a key supply route into Afghanistan for U.S. and allied convoys supplying troops there. Militant attacks have forced the United States to look at developing alternative routes.

Pakistani action against militants along the Afghan border is seen as crucial to U.S. efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, particularly as Washington sends more troops to fight a raging Taliban insurgency before a gradual withdrawal starts in 2011.

Reporting by Ibrahim Shinwari, with additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Jerry Norton