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Officials: Pakistani airstrikes kill 25 in northwest, hundreds of families flee

BANNU, Pakistan - Hundreds of families have fled Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border where the air force has been targeting Taliban insurgents and their hideouts for over a week, officials said Tuesday.

Military and intelligence officials said that jets and helicopter gunships killed nearly 25 insurgents in the latest strikes on Tuesday.

There is no way to confirm the claim independently. The lawless region is off limits to journalists. The officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to talk to media.

Most of the fleeing families are headed from North Waziristan to neighbouring Bannu city, said Lutfur Rehman, an officer with the provincial disaster management authority. Some of the families are heading to live with their relatives, he said.

Others, like 65-year-old Janan Wazir and his 12 relatives, say they have no idea where to take stay. "We really don't know where we are going," he told The Associated Press in Bannu. He and his family were squeezed in a mini-van with household items stuffed inside and packed on its roof. "We can't see our women, our children in pain anymore." He lived in Mir Ali town, which being a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban has been a target of many of the strikes.

Baitullah Wazir and his neighbour Zahir Wazir in Mir Ali also arrived in Bannu. They said aircraft and helicopters been carrying out strikes almost every night, and that they did know who were the people being targeted. "We just know that we are looking for some peaceful place," he said.

Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died over the last decade in the Taliban's war against the state. The militants aim to enforce their harsh brand of Islamic Shariah.

The Waziristan tribal region is home to a mix of local and foreign al-Qaida linked militants. Militants who fight against the American and its allied NATO troops across border in Afghanistan also operate there.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif long has favoured peace talks over military action to end the bloodshed in the northwest, but he is also under pressure from critics to retaliate for any Taliban violence. Critics also say the militants have also used the peace talks to strengthen and regroup their ranks, and call for military operations to disrupt the insurgents' use of their northwestern bases to stage attacks elsewhere in the country.

Local media reported that Sharif's Cabinet was scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss options for operations in the tribal region.

One of the two Pakistani officials claimed that the latest air strikes were specifically targeting compounds where the militants train their recruits and store explosives and ammunition.

Pakistan has regularly launched strikes against Taliban targets after recent peace talks broke over the killings of 23 soldiers by the militants.

Several of Sharif's ministers have recently said that the negotiation was still an option, but the Taliban have to acknowledge the country's constitution as supreme law. The militants have rejected the constitution.

His Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed also said that the government knew about of the families being displaced. "They are our responsibility. We will take care of them," he said, speaking on the local Geo TV channel.

Rehman, the provincial officer with disaster management, said that his department had made preparations to accommodate 600,000 to 700,000 displaced people.

______

Shahzad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press Writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.

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