PESHAWAR (Reuters) - Pakistani air strikes on Wednesday killed 34 militants in the country’s lawless northwest, near the mountainous border with Afghanistan, security officials said, but residents put the toll at 20.
Fighter jets pounded positions in the Tirah Valley in the Khyber region, west of the city of Peshawar, in “precise” strikes”, the military said in a statement.
“The local population had fled their homes and villages when the operation was launched against the terrorists,” an official told Reuters.
Another security official said those killed belonged to the outlawed militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and an allied group, Lashkar-e-Islam.
“In precise aerial strikes in Tirah, Khyber Agency, 34 terrorists were killed today,” the military said in a statement.
The Pakistani Taliban are allied with the Afghan militants of the same name and share a similar jihadist ideology. But they operate as a separate entity, focused on toppling the Pakistani state and establishing strict Islamic rule in the nuclear-armed nation.
In a statement, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing in Peshawar on Wednesday of a district president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Taliban spokesman Muhammed Khurassani said the group had targeted members of the small Awami National Party, the former ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
“Now PML-N is on our hit list and today’s activity is our start.”
The security officials said there were strong indications the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, was in the area at the time of the air strikes.
Tribal sources said 20 militants, among a group that had taken refuge in the valley, were killed in the air strikes.
They said most residents of the area had already fled.
Abdur Rashid, one of those displaced by the fighting, said he and other residents had left behind some family members to look after their houses and livestock.
“My elder brother said he had seen militants shifting bodies of the slain fighters to upper Tirah from Sandasa and nearby villages,” he said by telephone from the Landi Kotal subdivision of Khyber.
“Local militants of Lashkar-e-Islam told them 20 people were killed.”
Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez