BARA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Villagers found 14 bullet-ridden bodies scattered around the Bara area of the northwestern Khyber tribal region near the Afghanistan border on Sunday, as Pakistani security forces step up military offensives against militants.
Sunday’s discovery was made two days after 12 more bodies, also bearing signs of torture and numerous bullet-wounds, were discovered in the same area, 15 km (nine miles) south of Peshawar.
“They were taken into custody by the paramilitary Frontier Corps a few days back from Sepah area after unknown people attacked the FC post and killed four soldiers,” a tribesman told Reuters, requesting anonymity because he feared for his safety.
Another witness, Torab Ali, said all the bodies had had acid thrown on their faces, making identification difficult. “We don’t have any medical expertise but we think they were killed two or three days ago,” he added.
No one has acknowledged any connection with the deaths.
An official for the Frontier Corps (FC), which has taken the lead against militants in the Khyber agency, said he knew nothing about the bodies and that the men were never in the custody of the FC.
“It is possible they have been killed earlier during the military operation and their bodies recovered now,” the official said, who asked for anonymity. “The FC has been conducting military operations against the terrorists in Bara and other areas of Khyber tribal region.”
Another security official who requested anonymity said the operations -- conducted since Monday against the banned militant organization Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) -- had killed 25 militants and four troops. Twelve soldiers have been injured.
He said no one had been killed in custody and “any such report is baseless and devoid of facts”.
Fighting in the Bara area of Khyber, which sits astride a strategic supply route for NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan, has increased markedly in the past week, with security forces conducting a search and cordon operation.
A curfew was imposed, but security forces’ checkposts and convoys were still being attacked by militants. Local witnesses said 30 to 35 people had been killed since the operation began. It was not known if that number included those found dead in the last few days.
“We are investigating the incident,” said assistant political agent for Khyber, Bakhtiar Mohmand. “A few people had gone missing the first few days of the operation, we cannot confirm their identities yet.”
The government had asked women and children to evacuate the area and fighters to give themselves up.
This area of Bara is the hometown of militant leader Mangal Bagh who heads LeI. The Pakistan military and security forces have been conducting sporadic operations in the area since November 2011.
LeI is also fighting the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistan Taliban, in the area and frequently clashes with the larger group.
Elsewhere, Pakistani fighter jets killed 29 militants in the Mamozai area bordering two tribal regions near the Afghanistan border, destroying six militant hideouts. Fifteen militants were wounded, security officials said.
Additional reporting and writing by Mahawish Rezvi; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski