BANNU, Pakistan- Gunmen opened fire on a passenger jet as it landed in Pakistan's troubled northwest, killing a woman passenger and wounding two crew in an attack staged as the military wages an anti-militant offensive.
The Pakistan International Airlines flight, landing in Peshawar from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, came under fire late Tuesday as it descended with more than 170 passengers on board, airline spokesman Mashud Tajwar said.
Authorities said the plane landed safely but that a catastrophe was only narrowly avoided as it was just 1,500 metres above the ground when it was strafed with bullets from the unidentified attackers.
"The shots were fired from outside the airport, one lady passenger and two stewards were wounded, the woman later died in the hospital," Tajwar told AFP.
Police, who cordoned off an area outside the airport and launched a search for those responsible, paid tribute to the pilot's cool head.
"Credit goes to the aeroplane pilot that he managed to land safely," senior police official Najeeb Ur Rehman said.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which forced flights at the Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar to be temporarily suspended.
The assault was the second militant strike on a Pakistan airport in recent weeks, after a bloody raid in the southern port city of Karachi that extinguished a largely fruitless peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The Peshawar incident came hours after three people were killed in a suicide bombing in North Waziristan, the first such attack in the tribal region since the military launched a major operation against the Taliban and other militants.
The military also said it had killed 47 fighters in the tribal northwest, in the latest air strikes carried out as part of an offensive that began more than a week ago.
The armed forces have used jet fighters, tanks and artillery to kill more than 300 people they have described as militants, although the number and identity of the victims are impossible to verify.
Taliban counter-offensive begins
The suicide bomber struck in North Waziristan's Spinwam village, detonating a car bomb when he was intercepted on the approach to a checkpoint, officials said, killing two soldiers and a civilian.
"At least two soldiers and a civilian have embraced martyrdom," a security official told AFP.
The deaths bring to 12 the number of security forces killed in the offensive, dubbed "Zarb-e-Azb" after a sword used in battle by the Prophet Mohammad, since its launch on June 15.
The military said that troops stopped the suicide bomber 100 metres (yards) away from a checkpoint near a hospital and that the action averted major casualties.
The Ansar-ul-Mujahedin militant group, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility, with spokesman Abu Baseer saying it was the start of a counter-offensive against Pakistani troops.
"It is beginning of our offensive and we will launch attacks against government and local tribesmen if they form an anti-Taliban force," Baseer told AFP via telephone from an unknown location.
Half a million displaced
Earlier in the day, Pakistani jets and helicopters targeted militant hideouts at several locations in North Waziristan and the neighbouring Khyber tribal region, killing 47 militants, a military statement said.
The offensive has claimed the lives of a total 346 militants so far, according to an AFP tally.
The military operation has seen North Waziristan hit by more than a week of shelling and air raids, with more than 470,000 people fleeing ahead of an impending ground assault.
Many have headed to the nearby town of Bannu, where police and troops were forced to fire warning shots on Tuesday to quell a protest over food shortages.
An AFP reporter saw around 500 people blocking a main road into the town and pelting security forces with rocks in protest at delays in receiving aid, prompting police and soldiers to fire in the air to disperse them.
The UN said Tuesday that up to half a million people could be displaced by the current military operation and urged the Pakistani government to allow its agencies access to the affected areas.
The assault on the militant bastion of North Waziristan, long urged by Washington, was finally launched after the dramatic attack on Karachi airport which killed dozens of people and marked the end of the ailing peace process.