By Haji Mujtaba
BANNU, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani air strikes killed at least 24 suspected militants in their northwestern strongholds on Monday, intelligence officials said, a day after a bomb killed a provincial minister in the prime minister's political heartland.
The deeply forested ravines of Shawal Valley and Datta Khel are a smuggling route between Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, and are dotted with militant bases used as launch pads for attacks on Pakistani forces.
Two intelligence officials, who declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak on the record, said Monday's air strikes took place at 10 a.m. in the Zoi Nari, Lataka, Mizer Madakhel and Shawal areas of North Waziristan.
"Jet air shelling destroyed six militant hideouts and killed 24 militants hiding in this area," said one of the officials, adding that the dead included some foreigners.
A second official confirmed the deaths but declined comment when asked if the strikes were in retaliation for Sunday's attack in Punjab, which killed nine people, including the provincial security chief.
The Pakistani wing of the hard-line Islamist Taliban used to control all of mountainous North Waziristan, which includes the Shawal Valley and Datta Khel, and runs along the Afghan border. But the Pakistani military recaptured most of the region in a major armed operation launched last June.
NATO forces had long urged Pakistan for such an offensive, saying Taliban safe havens in the country were being used to attack NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Since May, the military has stepped up operations in Shawal Valley, where the Taliban still operates freely.
The area is a stronghold of Khan "Sajna" Said, the leader of a Taliban faction whose name the United States last year put on a sanctions list of "specially designated global terrorists".
Most phone lines to the area have been cut and military roadblocks limit civilian movement. It is not possible to independently verify security forces’ claims of attacks and deaths.
The Pakistani Taliban mainly fight against the government in Islamabad and are separate from, but allied with, the Afghan Taliban that ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s before being expelled in a U.S.-led military intervention.
Both groups send fighters against Afghanistan's Western-backed government. Afghan officials have said the Pakistani army offensive has driven large numbers of fighters over the border, complicating the war in Afghanistan's east and north.
(Additional Reporting by Hafiz Wazir; Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)