ISLAMABAD — An airstrike on suspected Islamic extremists in Pakistan's tribal zone killed at least 71 civilians, local residents said Tuesday, just as thousands more people are being forced to flee a U.S.-backed military offensive against Taliban and al Qaida fighters.
The Pakistani strike underscored the difficulties that the U.S. and its allies face in fighting militants who intermingle with innocent civilians, while grappling with poor intelligence and trying to win popular and political support.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has made reducing civilian casualties there a priority, but Afghans are growing increasingly exasperated with civilian deaths.
On Monday, American troops fired on a bus, killing at least four civilians and wounding 18 in the country's restive southern Kandahar province. The attack led to impromptu chants of "Death to America!" and Death to infidels!" by nearby residents.
The attack on the bus came as the U.S. military is preparing to launch a major offensive in Kandahar province, the nexus of Afghanistan's Taliban. The United States is struggling to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai's support for the offensive, but on Monday he instead criticized NATO for the bus shooting.
In Pakistan, accidental killings of innocents and the forced evacuation of people from their homes to escape bombardment are threatening the campaign to win over the people of the areas bordering Afghanistan, many of whom had supported the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pakistani airstrike took place Saturday in a remote part of the Khyber region of the tribal belt, the lawless area that borders Afghanistan. This week, the United Nations warned that Pakistan's latest anti-Taliban offensive has created more than 200,000 new refugees, this time mostly from Orakzai, which is adjacent to Khyber in the tribal area.
The chief army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, denied that civilians were killed in the airstrike, but the local government paid 10 million rupees — $118,000 — in compensation, residents said.
Military officials said they'd targeted bunkers that extremists were constructing in the Tirah valley, and it was unclear how a house could have been hit.
The house that was struck belonged to a tribal elder from the Kukikhel — a clan that's considered loyal to the Pakistani state — whose three sons serve in the Pakistani military.
"All of those killed were civilians, 100 percent innocent," said Ikramullah Jan Kukikhel, a local tribal elder, speaking by telephone from the area. "The Kukikhel are with the government. We have never joined the Taliban or any other fundamentalist group. We are normal people who just want peace for the country."
Kukikhel said that jets bombed the house of Hameed Khan in Sra Vella village Saturday, killing women, children and elderly people. The death count had reached 71 on Monday and by now could be around 80, and 20 or 30 more were wounded, he said.
As the villagers rushed to the scene to dig out the victims, Kukikhel said, a second airstrike was unleashed, which accounted for most of the death toll.
"We are standing with you, Pakistan, and you are targeting us," he said, adding that there were no hideouts for extremists near the house.
The Pakistani military hasn't admitted to causing any civilian casualties since it launched a series of anti-Taliban offensives a year ago in the Swat valley in the country's northwest. All those killed in operations routinely are labeled extremists.
"We had confirmed reports, from ground and aerial intelligence, that they (the extremists) were preparing fortified bunkers," said a military official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Maybe a bomb went left or right (of the target) or there was some human error. It happens in a war."
"Admitting the loss of civilian lives in misdirected aerial strikes, artillery shelling and raids and apologizing for the 'collateral damage' won't do any harm to the image of the military as the people understand that such incidents do happen in battle," Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist, wrote in The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper. "In fact, this could reduce the pain of the bereaved families because the usual practice of referring to their loved ones as 'militants' or 'miscreants' invariably contributes to their agony."
As well as Taliban and al Qaida elements, there are non-Taliban extremist groups in Khyber, especially Lashkar-e-Islam, a band led by warlord Mangal Bagh that mixes banditry and religion. The inaccessible Tirah valley is a favored hideout.
Separately, the United Nations warned this week that aid groups are running out of money for Pakistan's internally displaced people, with 1.3 million remaining homeless as a result of military operations, including an offensive in Orakzai that escalated a month ago and has pushed some 200,000 out of their houses.
"This situation is not only forgotten by the international community, but by Pakistanis, too," Kilian Kleinschmidt, the deputy director of the U.N. refugee agency in Pakistan, told a news conference in Islamabad. "The crisis here is not over."
International interest in the internal refugee crisis in Pakistan had dried up since 1.6 million displaced people from Swat returned home last year, he said. An emergency U.N. appeal for $537 million this year got only 20 percent of the amount requested.
In a further threat to the battle for "hearts and minds," the U.N. said that aid services to the displaced people, and help with returning to their homes when it was safe, would start to be curtailed within weeks unless the international community came up with more cash. Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef reported from Washington.
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