BANNU: When Pakistan Air Force jets bombed a village in North Waziristan last week, it was described as yet another victory over Taliban insurgents in an ongoing military offensive.
However, a counter-claim has emerged with some villagers alleging that there are civilians among the dead in that particular incident.
"Today early morning 35 fleeing terrorists were killed through aerial strikes in Shawal Valley," said an ISPR statement on July 16.
The press statement was part of a regular series of updates sent out by the army since the operation in North Waziristan tribal district, aimed at clearing Taliban strongholds, began in mid-June.
Almost 500 militants are said to have been killed in the fighting so far, which has been enthusiastically backed by the country's major political parties and media, who see it as a means of tackling a decade-long insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
But the official toll has been impossible to verify, raising questions among rights activists over the offensive's true human cost.
The alleged death of civilians has become a focus of rising anger among tribesmen who have managed to flee to border towns inside Pakistan, and who on Monday threatened to march on Islamabad if the operation does not end soon.
The bombardment in the Shawal Valley began just before 1:00 am, lighting up the sky as residents of Zoi Saidgai village sat down to eat their pre-dawn Ramadan meal.
"It continued for hours, targeting 11 houses," Malik Mirzal Khan, an elder who claimed he lost his daughter and brother in the strikes, told AFP from a payphone in his village.
"A single bomb dropped from the plane blew up two mud houses and the explosions could be heard 30 kilometres away," Khan, part of a high-level peace council that attempted to avert the government offensive before it began, said.
Noor Wali Khan, a 27-year-old truck driver, had similar claims to make.
However, the military has so far refused to comment on the matter on the record.
However, a senior security official speaking, requesting anonymity, has said those who were killed, if any, had plenty of warning to evacuate.
"If a terrorist is living with his family and does not abandon them even during the time of operation and we have solid ground intelligence about the terrorist and we target his hideout, what would you call it, collateral damage or what?" the source asked.
"If a terrorist is using his family as human shields what do you expect the military to do?"
Khan, the elder, said his village was never informed it would be a target.
"In the meetings with military and civil officials, we had been assured to stay home as our areas were declared safe and free from militant control," he said, adding that he had conveyed the same message to the local population and had forbidden them from leaving their own houses.
According to the residents, no rescue officials were able to reach the remote area.
Wali Muhammad, a 28-year-old shopkeeper, said that the nature of Wednesday's strikes meant the facts would eventually be known.
"You can't cover up the sun with a finger," he said, using a Pashto expression that roughly translates to: "The truth will come out".
Some 500 villagers turned out for funeral prayers to mourn the dead.
In Bannu, where tribesmen held a jirga Monday, elders said the Shawal Valley attack was not an isolated incident. Malik Mirzal Khan, the elder from Shawal, demanded an investigation into the air strike.
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