Pakistan's military on Wednesday said it killed 34 “terrorists" in airstrikes on a tribal region near the mountainous Afghan border as part of a major offensive against armed fighters that began last year.
Fighter jets pounded positions in the Tirah Valley in the Khyber tribal region, west of the city of Peshawar, in "precise strikes," the military said in a statement.
"The local population had fled their homes and villages when the operation was launched against the terrorists there," a security official told Reuters.
Another security official said those killed belonged to the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan —better known as the Pakistani Taliban — and an allied group, Lashkar-e-Islam.
Both groups are based in Khyber, one of seven autonomous tribal districts along Pakistan's western border, which became a hideout for armed groups following the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 2001.
The Pakistani Taliban are allied with the Afghan group of the same name and share a similar ideology. However, they operate as a separate entity, focused on toppling the Pakistani state and establishing strict Islamic rule in the nuclear-armed nation.
The officials who spoke to Reuters said there were strong indications that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, was in the area at the time of the strikes.
Tribal sources told Reuters that 20 fighters were killed in the airstrikes and said most of the residents had already fled the area.
Abdur Rashid, a tribesman displaced by the fighting, said he and other tribes people had left behind some of their family members to look after their houses and livestock.
"My elder brother said he had personally seen militants shifting bodies of the slain fighters to upper Tirah from Sandasa and nearby villages," he said by phone from the Landi Kotal subdivision of Khyber. "Local militants of Lashkar-e-Islam told them 20 people were killed."
The military began its latest offensive in Khyber in October 2014, four months after a similar operation in the North Waziristan district which was triggered by a bloody Taliban attack on Karachi airport that sank faltering peace talks.
Both conflict zones are off-limits to journalists, making it difficult to verify the number and identity of those killed. Rights activists are wary of the death tolls given by the military and say many women and children have also died. Airstrikes, artillery, mortars and ground troops have all been used to take back territory.