Pakistan airstrikes on Taliban hideouts kill 15

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan - Pakistani jets launched strikes on Taliban hideouts in the northwest on Thursday, killing 15 people according to security sources, in retaliation for attacks by the militants which have derailed peace talks.

The first raid confirmed by security officials came early Thursday when jets bombed several locations including a compound in the town of Mir Ali and surrounding parts of the North Waziristan tribal district.

"There are confirmed reports of 15 militants including foreigners killed in these airstrikes," a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

A second strike targeted militants hiding in the Khyber tribal district who are suspected of bombing a cinema in Peshawar last week and killing an army major on Tuesday, a second security official said.

The twin strikes and spiralling violence cast further doubt on a troubled peace process between the government and the insurgents just three weeks after talks began.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) had offered a ceasefire on Wednesday on condition that government forces stopped killing and arresting their members.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the start of talks on January 29 to "give peace another chance" following a seven-year Taliban insurgency that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives.

But a source in his office said Sharif, under pressure to avenge the Taliban killing spree, "issued orders to launch the airstrikes" after being briefed by military advisers.

After several rounds of talks, government mediators pulled out of scheduled dialogue with their Taliban counterparts on Monday amid outrage over the claimed execution of 23 kidnapped soldiers.

On Sunday a faction of the Islamist movement from Mohmand near the Afghan border said they had killed the soldiers who were seized in the area in June 2010.

Despite the new bloodshed, Professor Ibrahim Khan, a Taliban peace negotiator, said Thursday there was still a chance of a settlement.

"The bad effects are very visible but even then we will continue our struggle for the establishment of peace," he told AFP. "Negotiations are the only way. There is no other way." Rising death toll

A total of 93 people have been killed since the reconciliation effort was launched at the end of January, including the kidnapped soldiers, according to an AFP tally.

The Taliban say 60 of their members had died before Thursday's strikes. They have accused the army of executing its members while in custody.

"Air strikes were carried out to target militant hideouts with precision," a security official said about the first raids in North Waziristan.

"A huge cache of arms and ammunition has also been destroyed." Another security official said the strikes were "in retaliation for recent Taliban attacks".

As well as the execution of the kidnapped soldiers and other killings, the insurgents claimed a car bomb attack on a police bus in Karachi on February 13 in which 12 officers died.

The government has demanded a ceasefire as a condition to resume the peace talks.

A third security official in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, said jet fighters began pounding targets around 12:30 am, with the attack continuing for more than an hour.

Residents in the area, known as a hideout for Taliban and Al-Qaeda members, said the compound caught fire after the attack and many local people were moving to safer areas.

The second strike in Khyber also targeted militants and destroyed "prepared explosives and IEDs (improvised explosive devices)", said a security source who did not give a death toll.

The TTP has been waging a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007, often hitting military targets.

Some observers have raised doubts about the ability of the central Taliban command to control all factions, including some opposed to peace negotiations.

The Taliban's demands include the nationwide imposition of sharia law, an end to US drone strikes and the withdrawal of the army from northwestern tribal regions - conditions unlikely to be met.

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