By Haji Mujtaba
MIRANSHAH Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani fighter jets pounded suspected Taliban hideouts in the tribal North Waziristan region and killed nearly 80 militants on Sunday, the army said, in response to an audacious attack on the country's busiest airport a week ago.
The army said ethnic Uzbeks accounted for most of those killed in the latest air assault in a region which borders Afghanistan and is home to some of Pakistan's most feared militants and al Qaeda commanders.
It was not immediately known whether there were any civilian casualties. Journalists' movements are restricted in the ethnic Pashtun region where the army has imposed a curfew.
"Fighter jets targeted militant hideouts in the village of Dagan near the Pakistani-Afghan border," said one source in the regional capital of Miranshah.
"An important Uzbek commander, Abdul Rehman, has been killed in the air strike," he said, adding that Rehman was directly involved in masterminding the Karachi airport attack.
Military sources said a number of ethnic Uighur militants, who operate alongside Uzbeks and share a similar Turkic language with them, have also been killed.
The official account could not be independently verified and there was no immediate comment from the Taliban.
China believes that Uighur separatists based in Pakistan's tribal areas are behind an insurgency against Han Chinese in its restive Xinjiang province, although their exact numbers in Pakistan are unknown.
CLIMATE OF FEAR
In anticipation of more violence, families have been fleeing North Waziristan into other parts of Pakistan as a climate of fear has gripped the mountainous region.
Uzbeks with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant outfit based in North Waziristan, claimed responsibility for last Sunday's commando-style attack on Karachi airport when a squad of highly trained militants raided the facility.
The all-night assault all but destroyed prospects of peace talks with the militants, who are fighting to topple the Pakistani government in the capital Islamabad and impose a strict Sharia-based theocracy in the nuclear-armed nation.
After the Karachi attack, in which 38 people were killed, U.S. drones conducted the first air strikes in Pakistan since the start of the year, hitting militant positions.
Pakistani air force jets have also been pounding militant hideouts and there has been increased speculation that the army is preparing for a major ground and air offensive in the region.
Pakistani authorities also fear that militants themselves may be fleeing the area too, possibly into neighbouring Afghanistan, making it harder to kill or capture them.
Officials said a curfew had been imposed in the region and the army was setting up more checkpoints to improve security.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Gareth Jones)