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PESHAWAR, Jan 16: Pakistan Army helicopter gunships struck a suspected militant hideout in the restive South Waziristan tribal region early on Tuesday morning, killing at least 20 militants, a senior security official said.

Helicopter gunships hovered above Salamt village in Zamzola area, 30km to the east of Razmak in South Waziristan, and fired a volley of missiles into a cluster of compounds, security officials and locals in Zamzola said.

The officials said that the compounds situated in a desolate area were completely destroyed, killing most of the people inside.

"This used to be an Arab-dominated hideout," one official said. "But as of now, we don't know whether any of them has been killed," he said.

"The place had been under observation for two weeks. It was a training facility and a hideout. The compounds were situated in such a desolate area that it took locals nearly two hours to reach the scene of the operation," he said.

Another official said that three missiles completely destroyed three compounds while a forth one failed to explode.

Citing intelligence reports, he said some 25 militants had been killed and bodies of eight of them had been retrieved from underneath the rubble.

Of the eight, five were stated to be Afghans and three locals from the Kikari Mehsud tribe inhabiting the Ludda sub-district of the South Waziristan tribal region.

He said that 10 others wounded had been taken to private hospitals in Mirali in the neighbouring North Waziristan tribal region.

Citing intelligence reports, he claimed that among the dead were seven men of Middle Eastern origin. However, the claim could not be verified independently.

The senior security official said the place was frequented by foreign militants and senior Al Qaeda operatives but admitted that it would be premature to say whether any militant was there at the time of the operation.

He said the fact that there had been no women and children among the dead proved the place was being used as a training facility, organised and sponsored by militant commander Baitullah Mehsud.

Mr Mehsud, the overall commander of the militant Taliban in South Waziristan, was not present at the time of the operation.

The militant commander, in his late 40s, had signed a peace agreement with the government in February 2005 but security officials acknowledged that the truce had done nothing to deter him from carrying out his operations in neighbouring Afghanistan.

But tribal parliamentarian from South Waziristan, Maulana Merajuddin, said that innocent people had been killed in the operation, and the validity of the February 7 agreement between the government and Mr Mehsud was now open to question.

"Innocent people have been killed in the attack," the cleric-turned parliamentarian, who had helped broker a peace agreement between the government and militants in his native Waziristan agency, said by telephone.

"Those were poor labourers involved in wood-cutting. It’s now up to the people to decide whether the peace agreement still holds," he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of angry demonstrators burnt tyres and blocked the road in neighbouring Tank district in southern NWFP.

Chanting slogans against President Musharraf and the US, the demonstrators accused the government of killing innocent people, some of whom had gone there to work as daily wagers.

AFP adds: Major General Shaukat Sultan, spokesman for the Pakistan Army, said helicopters attacked the camps after reports of 25 to 30 local and foreign militants there.

“I can't give you the exact number of casualties but most of them were believed killed,” he said, adding that three of the five camps were destroyed.He said the camps had been under surveillance for days before the operation was carried out at 6:55am on Tuesday.

And a military statement said ‘foreign terrorists and local facilitators’ were occupying a complex of five camps in the mountain forest of Zamazola which is located opposite Barmal district in the Afghan province of Paktika.

“Their activities were under surveillance for the past few days and upon confirmation, this hideout was busted ... through a precision strike in which gunship helicopters also participated,” it said.