PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – Up to 71 civilians were killed in a weekend strike by Pakistani jets near the Afghan border, survivors and a government official said Tuesday, a rare confirmation of civilian casualties that risks undercutting public support for the fight against militants.
The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said authorities had already handed out the equivalent of $125,000 in compensation to families of the victims in a remote village in the Khyber tribal area.
Speaking Monday, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied that any of the dead were civilians, saying the air force had intelligence that militants were gathering at the site of the strike, which took place Saturday. The victims were initially reported to be suspected militants.
Two survivors interviewed Tuesday in hospital gave a detailed account of the attack. They said most of the victims were killed when they were trying to rescue people trapped by an earlier strike on the house of a village elder.
“This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information,” said Khanan Gul Khan, a resident of the village who was visiting a relative in hospital in Peshawar, the main town in the northwest. “This area has nothing to do with militants.” He said 68 people were killed and many more wounded. The political official said Monday that the families of 71 victims had been compensated, but did not identify them. Reports of significant civilian casualties in the strike Saturday have appeared in the local media in recent days.
An editorial Tuesday in Dawn, a respected English-language daily, said it was clear that the dead had no links to the militants and that the incident “strengthens the hands of the Taliban.”
“Such actions defy description and an explanation is in order from those who ordered the assault,” it said.
The Pakistani army, under heavy Al Qaeda militants in the northwest over the last 18 months. It regularly reports killing scores of militants in airstrikes, but rarely, if ever, reports on civilian deaths.
Independent accounts of the attacks are rare because reporters are barred from much of the region.