Pakistan bombs militant hideouts in tribal area after talks collapse

ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) - Pakistani fighter jets bombed suspected militant hideouts in a tribal area on the Afghan border on Thursday, killing at least 15 people, security officials said, after attempts to engage insurgents in peace negotiations collapsed this week.

"We received information about militant hideouts and based on our intelligence, precision strikes were carried out around midnight in the Mir Ali area," an intelligence official told Reuters.

"Fifteen militants were killed in the bombing. Thirteen of them were foreign fighters." Another security official said a cache of arms was destroyed in the strikes.

The administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power last year promising to find a negotiated peace with the Taleban, has been trying to engage the militants in talks.

But as the talks broke down this week, the air strikes may herald a broader military offensive in North Waziristan, a region where many Al-Qaeda-linked militants are based.

The army publicly supports Sharif's call for talks but, in private, senior officers have expressed frustration, giving rise to talk that the military was waiting for an excuse to mount an armed operation.

This excuse may have come this week when a Taleban wing operating in the tribal Mohmand region said it had executed 23 soldiers in revenge for the killing of their fighters by army forces.

Thursday morning's air strikes also came just hours after Pakistan's army said more than 100 soldiers had been killed by Taleban militants in the last five months, a rare admission of mass casualties.

In an unusually tough statement, Sharif's spokesman said in televised remarks late on Wednesday that the Pakistan army was capable of crushing all enemies.

"The prime minister wants to resolve these issues without bloodshed but if the Taleban continue killing people then we will be left with no choice but to keep our citizens safe from terrorism through any means possible," Pervez Rashid said.

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