MIRAMSHAH, March 1: Forty people were killed and 30 others, including women and children, were wounded when helicopter gunships struck a suspected militants’ compound in a village in North Waziristan on Wednesday morning, officials and residents said.

The attack triggered a strong reaction in Miramshah where hundreds of seminary students besieged several checkposts of paramilitary forces. Pitched battles between locals and security forces continued for hours.

North Waziristan Agency’s political agent Zaheerul Islam claimed that most of the people killed in the attack on the Dandy Saidgay village, about 15km from Miramshah, belonged to Central Asia.

A security official said that a Chechen commander was also hit from a helicopter, when he tried to escape in a red double-cabin pick-up. His (Chechen’s) name could not be ascertained, he added.

“Two guards of the Chechen commander were killed on the spot, while he died a couple of hours later,” said a military source in Peshawar.

Officials said one soldier was killed and 15 others were wounded in the assault carried out in the area along the Afghan border.

About 12 helicopters, including six gunships, and commandos from the army’s Special Services Group took part in the operation that started at around 7am.

Witnesses said that while residential compounds were hit by combat helicopters, ground troops moved in for conducting a search operation, prompting a gunbattle with tribesmen.

A wounded person, Shabir Khan, under treatment at a hospital in Miramshah, said he saw helicopters shelling houses in the area.

Shabir, student of a local college, said he was travelling with a female relative across the rugged area when their vehicle was attacked by a helicopter.

The woman died on the spot, while he and his driver suffered injuries, Shabir said.

Sources said that two children of Noor Payo Khan, the alleged protector of foreign militants, were among the dead.

Thirteen civilians, including women, were wounded in the airstrike.

Official sources said that army troops backed by helicopters attacked the suspected compound owned by Noor Payo Khan, in the middle of a cluster of houses in Dandy Saidgay.

“Certainly, the compound was used as a hideout by foreign militants, but it was completely empty at the time of the attack. Nobody was there,” said a resident.

Protesting against the attack, hundreds of madressah students, known as the local Taliban, thronged the town and besieged several paramilitary checkposts.

Witnesses said the protesters, many of them armed, captured 12 soldiers and took away their arms.

However, the soldiers were later freed.

The seminary students smashed government offices and attacked soldiers, prompting a heavy gunfight between the security forces and locals. Helicopter gunships were called in. People fired at helicopters when they started shelling houses.

The house of a tribesman, Janan Khan, and a clinic came under attack in the Dandy Derpakhel area.

A witness said that the body of an unidentified man was found on the Sergardan Chowk.

Locals said that about 1,000 students of local seminaries later paraded the streets, chanting slogans against the US and calling for jihad. Local cleric Maulvi Abdul Haq led the march.

Maulvi Haq called for jihad prompting people to take up positions on various buildings. A helicopter engaged the armed men on rooftops and fired several rounds. It attracted some fire from the protesters.

The locals said that the gunfire lasted three hours. Sources said that a large number of Taliban had gathered in a mosque to devise a future line of action.

Electricity supply was disrupted after power lines were damaged in the intense firing. The telephone exchange was shut down.

AFP adds: Army spokesman Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan said the raid followed intelligence that there was a big gathering of foreign militants in the compound, housing eight residential quarters.

Mr Zaheerul Islam said the militants were targeted following information that they were carrying out attacks across the Afghan border.

“We have reports up to 40 militants, mainly foreigners, were killed in the raid on the compound where there was a big gathering of foreign militants,” a security official told AFP.

A local official identified the suspected Chechen commander as Imam.

“It was an Al Qaeda camp and a training centre,” an official said seeking anonymity.

Maj-Gen Sultan said militants had stored a big cache of ammunition in the compound which caught fire after the airstrike. Explosions were heard an hour after the raid.