KARACHI, PAKISTAN – Pakistan carried out early morning airstrikes Tuesday on a militant-infested tribal district, killing at least 15 people, the military said, a day after a brazen and bloody Taliban assault on Karachi airport.
A military statement said “nine terrorist hideouts were destroyed” in the raids, which came after the Taliban stormed Pakistan’s biggest airport, killing at least 37 people in an all-night battle on Monday.
Fresh bodies, reportedly those of seven airport workers who hid in a cold-storage facility that was engulfed in flames during the attack, were recovered by Pakistani authorities Tuesday.
Pressure has built on the military to act after Monday’s attack by at least 10 militants, which left a nascent peace process in tatters and raised questions about how they were able to penetrate the airport in Pakistan’s economic hub.
Taliban militants said the assault was carried out in revenge for the November killing of the militant group’s leader in a U.S. drone strike.
In a telephone call to reporters, the group’s spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, warned that “such attacks will continue until there is a permanent cease-fire.”
The airstrikes are the latest in a succession of such attacks carried out by the Pakistani military in the tribal belt this year after talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) broke down.
The last were carried out in North Waziristan in late May, killing at least 75 people and causing some 58,000 people to flee from the district in fear of a fuller ground offensive that has been anticipated for years.
The Khyber district itself was targeted previously in April in aerial bombing that killed 37 people.
The district is believed to be home to several militant factions, most notably Lashkar-e-Islam, led by warlord Mangal Bagh, as well foreign fighters from Central Asia.
Pakistan began talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in February, with a cease-fire agreed in March but breaking down a month later.
Many observers believe that following the attack on Karachi the process is all but dead and the government is under pressure to react — though the prime target remains North Waziristan, the main stronghold of TTP and Al-Qaeda linked militants.
An offensive in North Waziristan has been rumored for years but analysts remain cautious about whether the military has the capacity to attempt such a move without assistance from the Afghan side of the border where militants are likely to flee in the event of an attack.
Talat , a retired general and security analyst, said there was pressure on the government to target both North Waziristan as well as TTP sleeper cells in major cities, especially Karachi, which has a large population from the tribal areas.
“There is an urgent need to neutralize such attacks and the government should take firm action in the areas which are their hideouts,” he said. “A simultaneous action should be taken against the militants in Karachi and elsewhere along with North Waziristan.”