(AP) WANA, Pakistan – Pakistani warplanes pummeled a suspected al-Qaida training facility near the border with Afghanistan on Thursday, flattening a vast mud-brick compound and killing at least 50 fighters, the military said.
The assault was among the fiercest in months of fighting in the dusty border region, considered a possible hideout for Osama bin Laden and his deputy, who are still on the run nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told The Associated Press that at least 50 people were killed, mostly Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechens. He said the camp was believed to be linked to bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
“The foreign elements operating in these tribal areas have links with al-Qaida,” Sultan said. He said he had no information on whether any high-value al-Qaida targets were present at the site.
Pakistan frequently has overstated the scope of its military operations, claiming to have captured or killed foreigners that turn out to be local tribesmen or to have zeroed in on top al-Qaida men who never materialize. Villagers also have complained of heavy civilian casualties.
Sultan said the camp near the village of Dila Khula was destroyed in the assault and all the people inside were believed killed. He described the site as being composed of two mud-brick buildings, with an explosives training facility in the middle.
“I don’t think they put up a fight. They were taken by surprise,” he said.
Military officials said ground troops moved in after the air assault; no military casualties were reported.
Alam Khan, a resident of Ladha, a village near Khunkhela, told AP by phone that three other nearby villages were also hit in the operation. He said he saw at least two jets and about 10 army helicopters flying over the scene during the fighting, which lasted about two hours.
Dust and smoke could be seen rising from houses in the villages, Khan said.
Sultan said the men had been involved in terrorist acts inside Pakistan but gave no details. He said they were not connected to suspected Chechen and Arab militants who took hundreds hostage at a school in southern Russia last week. At least 326 people — many of them children — died in the end to that siege.
“We came to know about this camp after investigations into recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan,” Sultan said.
A large number of Central Asian and Arab militants are believed to be living in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Many never left after coming to the area to fight alongside U.S.-backed Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The area’s tribes are fiercely autonomous and deeply resentful of the army’s presence, making it an ideal hideout. Sultan said the training facility had been under surveillance for some time but would not say how long it was believed to have been there.
He denied any U.S. involvement in the raid, although Pakistan has in the past acknowledged receiving technical and logistical support from Washington.
Pakistan’s army has launched frequent attacks in North and South Waziristan to flush out Islamic militants. Hundreds of people, including civilians, have died in the attacks.
Pakistan, an ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the Afghan border to fight al-Qaida and Taliban fighters operating there.
In June, 17 soldiers and 55 militants died in several days of fighting in South Waziristan. That same month, an airstrike killed Nek Mohammed, a renegade tribal leader accused of sheltering al-Qaida fighters in the region.