ISLAMABAD / MIRAMSHAH: Dozens of militants, mostly Uzbek fighters, were killed as Air Force jets and army’s helicopter gunships carried out punitive strikes against terrorist hideouts in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency.

The strikes in North Waziristan’s areas of Mirali and Datta Khel happened late on Wednesday night, while a militant compound in Khyber was targeted on Thursday.

The attacks followed the breakdown in government’s talks with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in the aftermath of TTP Mohmand chapter’s claim of killing 23 Frontier Corps soldiers and the death of a major in an attack on an army vehicle near Peshawar.

“Air strikes were carried out with precision against militant hideouts in Mirali and Datta Khel. There are reports of a large number of militants being killed in these strikes and a huge cache of arms and ammunition has also been destroyed,” a military spokesman said.

A military official said six targets were hit in the overnight aerial raids.

There have been varying figures of the militants killed in the attacks. Some sources claimed that 19 militants were killed, while others put the casualty figure at 30. However, it has been confirmed that most of those killed were Uzbeks. According to a figure provided by military’s public affairs division ISPR, 16 Uzbek terrorists were killed in the attacks.

The Uzbeks belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which has been operating in the region under the patronage of TTP and the Haqqani network.

The military had carried out a similar targeted operation on Jan 21 in the same region after attacks on military personnel in Bannu and Rawalpindi’s RA Bazaar. It had been claimed that most of those killed were foreign militants.

Interestingly, both in Jan 21 and Feb 19/20 attacks it appeared that the primary target was foreign militants and not the local Taliban fighters.

Meanwhile, in Khyber Agency’s Bara region army gunships targeted a compound, which, according to military officials, had an explosives dump, housed suicide bombers and where IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were being prepared.

Seven militants, all Pakistanis, were killed in the Bara strike. Among those killed in the attack was a key militant commander identified as Hazrat Ali and three would-be suicide bombers.

“The militants targeted in Khyber Agency were involved in the Peshawar cinema blast on Feb 13 and killing of Major Jehanzaib on Feb 18 in FR Peshawar. Prepared explosives and an IED factory were also destroyed in the attack,” the ISPR said.

There was no immediate reaction from the TTP to the raids on the terrorist hideouts, but Yousuf Shah, who is associated with negotiators appointed by the outlawed militant group for dialogue with the government, told media that he was still hopeful of resumption of suspended talks.

The strikes led to speculations that the government may have finally begun the military offensive to clear North Waziristan and other militancy-hit areas of terrorists.

But a senior security official said the attacks were “punitive strikes” Options, including dialogue, were still open, he said.

However, he said: “The strategy has been readjusted to the extent” that the future course would depend on how TTP reacts, but added that a full-scale operation was unlikely in near future.

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