PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Fighter jets and helicopter gunships bombarded the tribal areas of northern Pakistan early Thursday, killing at least 23 suspected Islamist militants just days after government efforts to open peace talks with insurgents collapsed.
Pakistani intelligence officials said that 16 militants were killed in airstrikes in North Waziristan and another seven were killed in Khyber Agency, possibly signaling the start of a broader government offensive against insurgents allied with the Pakistani Taliban.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been under growing pressure from army chiefs to attack the insurgents, authorized the strikes late Wednesday, according to an official who spoke to the Reuters news agency.
The raids occurred after Sharif’s bid to launch the first serious peace talks with the outlawed Pakistani Taliban fell apart following an escalating series of militant attacks in recent weeks, including the reported killing of 23 paramilitary soldiers in insurgent custody Sunday.
Sharif condemned the killings and his aides immediately canceled talks scheduled with Taliban representatives in northwest Pakistan.
An intelligence official who requested anonymity to discuss the military operation said that six locations were bombed in North Waziristan and that the airstrikes in Khyber Agency killed suicide bombers and a senior insurgent commander. The reports couldn’t be verified independently because access to the tribal areas is severely restricted.
Since September, when Sharif’s government opened peace efforts, 308 civilians and 152 police and soldiers have been killed in militant attacks, officials said. The Pakistani Taliban’s central leadership distanced itself from some of the more recent assaults, which reflected opposition to the peace talks among some insurgent factions.
Residents in Miram Shah, the administrative capital of North Waziristan, said the strikes began about 12:30 a.m. and continued for an hour. Zamir Gul, a resident, told the Los Angeles Times by telephone that Pakistani warplanes bombed the areas of Mir Ali, Datakhel and Shawal, adding that residents had fled their homes in fear.
Five people were reportedly killed and three injured in an air attack on a compound in Shawal, a mountainous area along the Afghanistan border.
The raids came a day after the Pakistani Taliban’s chief spokesman said the group would agree to a cease-fire if the government stopped the alleged killing of militants in its custody. The group said in a statement that the execution of the paramilitary soldiers Sunday was in retaliation for the killings of 23 insurgents in official custody in the cities of Karachi and Nowshera.
The insurgent group “is ready for a cease-fire if the government stops custodial and extrajudicial killings and arrests of our workers,” spokesman Shahid Ullah Shahid told reporters from an undisclosed location Wednesday.
The Pakistani government has denied killing militants in its custody.