Pakistan air strikes on militant hideouts kill at least 18

PESHAWAR (AFP) - Pakistani fighter jets on Sunday launched air strikes on militant hideouts in the northwest, killing at least 18 people, according to officials, in the latest retaliation for attacks by the militants that have derailed peace talks.

The strikes made on militant hideouts in the Tirah valley of the Khyber tribal district were the third in the series of raids by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) since February 20.

They follow the execution of 23 Pakistan soldiers by the Taleban last week, which cast doubts over dialogue initiated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on January 29.

"Terrorists hideouts were targeted through air strikes in Tirah valley in Khyber early morning on Sunday. IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) making factories and huge quantity of explosive material were destroyed," said a senior security official in Islamabad.

Another security official on the ground in Khyber told AFP that at least 18 militants were killed and two hideouts were destroyed.

Local administration officials refused to comment, saying it was a matter for the military, and the tolls could not be independently verified as it is difficult for journalists to enter the area.

On Saturday, at least nine militants were killed when Pakistani gunship helicopters pounded Taleban hideouts in Thall village in Hangu district, near the tribal areas where militants linked to the Taleban and Al-Qaeda have strongholds.

Two days earlier, security officials said they killed over 30 militants including 16 Uzbeks in the air strikes conducted in the northwest, infiltrated by the local and foreign militants.

The air strikes and spiralling violence have cast serious doubt on a troubled peace process between the government and the insurgents that began just three weeks ago.

After several rounds of talks, government mediators pulled out of scheduled dialogue with their Taleban counterparts on Monday amid outrage over the claimed execution of 23 kidnapped soldiers.

A faction of the Islamist movement from Mohmand near the Afghan border said on February 16 they had killed the soldiers who were seized in the area in June 2010.

Government mediators have set a ceasefire as a precondition for another round of talks but Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for Pakistani Taleban, on Friday blamed Islamabad for the deadlock and asked the state to declare a ceasefire first.

The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella grouping of numerous militant factions, has been waging a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007, carrying out a number of bomb and gun attacks, often on military targets.

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