MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan – Pakistani aircraft bombed a village bazaar packed with shoppers near the Afghan border Tuesday, pushing the death toll to 250 in four days of fighting — the deadliest clashes since Pakistan threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terror in 2001.
The attack on Epi village in North Waziristan tribal region killed dozens of militants and civilians — deaths that are likely to harden domestic opposition to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's alliance with Washington.
The bazaar was crowded with people buying food to break their daylong Ramadan fast when it was rocked by a dozen explosions that destroyed shops and nearby homes, residents said. Abdul Sattar, a grocery shop owner, said he counted more than 60 dead and more than 150 wounded, including many civilians. Many of the victims were mutilated.
"Some did not have heads, hands or legs. Some people were searching for their children and women," Sattar told The Associated Press by telephone from Epi.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said military aircraft targeting militant hideouts struck "one or two places" near the town of Mir Ali — located about 2 1/2 miles from Epi — and local tribesmen reported about 50 militants were killed.
He said the airstrikes might have killed some civilians who were living in the areas where militant hideouts were targeted, but he had no exact numbers.
"We had confirmed reports about the presence of militants, and the air power was used to target those militant hideouts," he told the AP.
Another resident, Noor Hassan, said both militants and civilians were killed and that he was fleeing the area. He said the nearby village of Hader Khel also was bombed.
The fighting broke out in North Waziristan on Saturday after a roadside bomb hit a truckload of paramilitary troops, sparking bitter clashes. The bodies of dozens of soldiers, many with their throats slit, have been recovered from deserted areas of the region, fleeing residents said.
The violence comes as Musharraf tries to secure another term as president, vowing to shore up Pakistan's effort against Islamic extremism, particularly in its border regions where Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are suspected to hide.
Pakistani troops have suffered mounting losses as they try to reassert state authority in a swath of mountainous territory where warlords supportive of the Taliban and al-Qaida have seized control. Now the army appears to be resorting to heavy firepower.
Sattar, the shop owner, accused the army of "oppressing" the local Pashtun tribespeople. He said journalists should visit the area so they could see that the "miscreants" — a byword in Pakistan for militants — targeted by security forces were in fact women and children.
Pakistan struck a controversial cease-fire deal with militants in North Waziristan last year. U.S. officials criticized the pact, claiming it gave a safe haven for al-Qaida and provided a rear base for Taliban guerrillas fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In July, Pakistan's army redeployed troops at key checkpoints in the region, sparking fresh hostilities. Security forces have since suffered more than 250 casualties, many of them in suicide bombings, and more than 230 soldiers have been kidnapped.
The escalating clashes have sparked debate in Pakistan on whether military action — widely perceived as done at the bidding of the United States despite Musharraf's insistence it is in the national interest — can curb Islamic extremism or only serves to enflame it.
"Rather than losing soldiers and killing civilians in indiscriminate bombings (the government) should revive the peace agreements with tribesmen and devise an effective strategy to flush out foreign militants," an editorial in The Nation daily said Tuesday.
Prior to Tuesday's airstrikes, the army reported that battles have killed 150 militant fighters and 45 soldiers since Saturday, while about 12-15 troops were missing.
It is the most intense episode of fighting on the Pakistan side of the border since Musharraf first sent troops to its lawless tribal regions in late 2001.
The army said in a statement it had rejected a cease-fire proposed by the militants and will "continue punitive action until complete peace is restored."
On Sunday, about 300 militants ambushed an army convoy traveling to the scene of a roadside bombing, killing 22 troops and wounding 11, an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
One resident of Isu Khel village said three soldiers came to his home asking for protection but he refused, fearing he might be targeted by militants. Others said they saw the bodies of soldiers in deserted areas and on the side of the road between the region's two main towns, Mir Ali and Miran Shah.
Many victims' throats were slit, they said.
A woman, who fled to Miran Shah, said she saw eight soldiers who had been shot dead. The bodies were covered in dust and one was mutilated, she said.
The villagers spoke to the AP on condition their names not be used because they feared reprisals.
On Monday, the army used artillery and fighter jets against militant targets in Isu Khel and nearby Melagan village, where announcements were being made from mosques urging authorities not to target civilian areas, residents said.
The intelligence official also said Monday that a dozen civilians had died when a shell struck their home in Mir Ali. It was unclear who fired the shell.
Arshad said some houses had been targeted that were being used for attacks on security forces and some residents may have died.