Pakistan: Airstrikes kill 61 suspected militants

By Hussain Afzal
Associated Press Writer / March 25, 2010

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PARACHINAR, Pakistan—Pakistani military airstrikes killed 61 suspected militants in an area near the Afghan border Thursday, including dozens at a seminary where Taliban commanders were believed to be meeting, officials said.

The jet fire rained in two spells during the day in the Mamuzai area of Orakzai, a tribal region where many Pakistani Taliban leaders are believed to have fled to avoid an army ground offensive further south.

Alongside the religious seminary, a mosque and a school were targeted, local official Samiullah Orakzai said.

Two intelligence officials said the seminary was a main center for Tableeghi Jamaat, a non-violent Islamic missionary group. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

The center was targeted because a group of Taliban leaders were believed to be meeting there in the afternoon. Some four dozen people died in the airstrikes in and around the seminary, while 13 others were killed in morning strikes at the two other sites.

The officials said all 61 were suspected militants. Independent confirmation of the death toll or the victims' identities was nearly impossible because access to the tribal region is restricted.

Orakzai is considered a major base for Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistan Taliban's top commander, who is believed to have died in a U.S. missile strike in January. The Taliban have denied his death, but have failed to show evidence he is still alive.

The Pakistani Taliban have been under pressure in their main stronghold, South Waziristan tribal region, since the army launched its ground offensive there in October. Many are believed to have scattered to other parts of the tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan in Pakistan's northwest.

Orakzai and neighboring tribal area Kurram have witnessed numerous airstrikes over the past few months as Pakistan tries to catch fleeing militants.