ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani soldiers backed by helicopter gunships attacked a suspected militant hideout in Pakistan's volatile tribal region near the Afghan border and killed about 30 fighters, an army spokesman said Saturday.
But residents and hardline clerics disputed the military's claim, saying most of the dead were local villagers, including women and children.
Gen. Shaulat Sultan would not reveal the identities or nationalities of those killed late Friday near the town of Miran Shah, the scene of repeated clashes between security forces and militants in the past week.
"We did that with full accuracy on authentic intelligence, and according to our information about 30 miscreants, who included foreigners, were killed," he told The Associated Press by phone.
No security forces were hurt and all those present at the hideout were killed, he said, adding the raid blew up a large cache of weapons.
But two residents told an Associated Press reporter that they saw the bodies of women and children at the scene. They did not give their names because of the risk of reprisals.
Syed Nek Zaman, a hardline opposition lawmaker who is also a cleric, also condemned the military operations, claiming the army had only killed "innocent tribesmen."
"Come up with evidence if you killed foreigners," he said during a session of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
He also said local women and children were among the victims of the offensive.
An intelligence official in the region said the targeted compound belonged to a pro-Taliban cleric, Maulvi Sadiq Noor, although it was not clear whether he was there at the time. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said security forces were hunting for more foreigners believed to be hiding in the region.
Noor and other pro-Taliban tribesmen have been targeted since earlier this week when their armed men captured government buildings following a military attack on an al-Qaida hideout near Miran Shah. Over 100 suspects and eight soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Days later, authorities imposed a curfew in Miran Shah after regaining control of government buildings from militants, who are believed to have retreated to nearby mountains.
Pakistan is a key ally of the United States and has asked tribal elders to evict foreign militants and their supporters from their areas or prepare for military action.
The recent clashes in North Waziristan were the worst in Pakistan's tribal regions since 2004 when scores of al-Qaida militants, troops and local fighters died during fighting in the neighboring region of South Waziristan.
Officials say members of Afghanistan's toppled Taliban regime and al-Qaida militants continue to hide in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions near the Afghan border.
The recent unrest has compelled thousands of residents to flee to safer areas, but on Friday, some shops reopened and several families began returning home.
Farid Ullah, 34, who had fled to the nearby town of Mir Ali with his wife and five children, said he had returned to Miran Shah after hearing that fighting had ended.
"We pray for peace, and we ask the government to avoid the use of force and to try to resolve all issues through peaceful means," he said as his family walked to the town.
Pakistan has deployed 80,000 troops and mounted a series of military operations in tribal regions to flush out militants. Pro-Taliban tribesmen insist that most of the people killed in the army raids were innocent civilians, a charge the military denies.