PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Hundreds of Pakistanis rallied Friday against an army operation in the North Waziristan tribal area that residents claim killed many civilians even though the military said the offensive targeted militants.
About 300 people, mostly students from North Waziristan, took to the streets in the frontier city of Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan, to denounce the operation and demand an investigation.
Zahidullah Khan, a student at Peshawar University from the village of Mosaki near the town of Mir Ali said his aunt was killed by military shelling.
"The army is claiming they have killed militants and terrorists. They think my aunt was a terrorist?" he said.
The military said the escalation in the tribal area began late Wednesday when a military convoy dispatched to assist with troop casualties came under attack. The convoy had rushed to the aid of soldiers wounded and killed in a suicide bombing on a check-post outside an army base earlier in the day.
The convoy returned fire, and the military said its troops killed at least 23 alleged militants. The next day, troops responding to a tip that militants preparing bombs were hiding in Mir Ali killed 10 more militants, the military said. Most of those killed were believed to Uzbeks, the military said. North Waziristan is home to many militant groups including foreign fighters who use the area as a base for attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan.
But some residents accused the military of killing innocent civilians. Two from Mir Ali where the clashes happened, Akhtar Khan and Arif Dawar, said many of the dead were civilians. The military contends that those killed were militants, and the spokesman for Pakistan's military, Gen. Asim Bajwa said on Twitter that the military acted in self-defense.
A curfew put in place Thursday in the area was lifted Friday morning, said local residents.
Some described the damage that had taken place. In the bazaar area of Mir Ali, one local resident, Aershad Khan, said most of the shops were burned and damaged by government shelling. He said local residents were searching damaged buildings and gutted shops for bodies and wounded.
"The fruit market is totally gutted with fire and nothing is left there but ashes," Khan said.
North Waziristan is one of Pakistan's most dangerous and remote areas, making it difficult for journalists to independently verify and report from there.
Pakistani troops have been battling militants in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan for years, although North Waziristan is one area where they have not staged a large-scale operation to root out militants. The militants have carried out scores of attacks around the country that have killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
Residents in the tribal areas often accuse the military of indiscriminately opening fire after they are attacked. The military disputes that and says militants often dress in civilian clothes to hide among the local population. The vast majority of the U.S. drone strikes have targeted North Waziristan.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.