By Jibran Ahmad and Ibrahim Shinwari
BARA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Villagers found 13 bullet-ridden bodies scattered around the Bara area of the northwestern Khyber tribal region near the Afghanistan border on Sunday, as Pakistani security forces step up military offensives against militants.
Sunday's discovery was made just two days after 12 more bodies, also bearing signs of torture and numerous bullet-wounds, were discovered in the same area, 15 km (nine miles) south of Peshawar.
"They were taken into custody by the paramilitary Frontier Corps a few days back from Sepah area after unknown people attacked the FC post and killed four soldiers," a local tribesman told Reuters, requesting anonymity because he feared for his safety.
No one has acknowledged any connection with the deaths.
An official for the Frontier Corps (FC), which has taken the lead against militants in the Khyber agency, said he knew nothing about the bodies and that the men were never in the custody of the FC.
"It is possible they have been killed earlier during the military operation and their bodies recovered now," the official said, who asked for anonymity. "The FC has been conducting military operations against the terrorists in Bara and other areas of Khyber tribal region."
Witnesses claimed one of the slain men found on Sunday was a former commander of the banned militant organization, Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI), which is fighting the government in the Khyber agency.
LeI is also fighting the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistan Taliban, in the area and frequently clashes with the larger group.
Fighting in the Bara area of Khyber, which sits astride a strategic supply route for NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan, has increased markedly in the past week, with security forces conducting a search and cordon operation since Tuesday.
A curfew was imposed, but security forces' checkposts and convoys were still being attacked by militants. Witnesses said 30 to 35 people had been killed since the operation began.
"We are investigating the incident," said assistant political agent for Khyber, Bakhtiar Mohmand. "A few people had gone missing the first few days of the operation, we cannot confirm their identities yet."
The government had asked women and children to evacuate the area and fighters to give themselves up.
This area of Bara is the hometown of militant leader Mangal Bagh who heads LeI. The Pakistan military and security forces have been conducting sporadic operations in the area since November 2011.
(Additional reporting and writing by Mahawish Rezvi; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski)