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Pakistani steps up Khyber offensive, launches airstrikes in mountainous border region

Airstrikes killed 34 militants in the Kyhber tribal border region near Afghanistan, the Pakistani military said Wednesday. The strikes follow Sundays deadly suicide attack on a Christian Church in Lahore that killed 17.

Wednesday's airstrikes targeted the Pakistani Taliban and its allies who are based in the remote Tirah Valley west of the city of Pesharwar near the Afghan frontier.

The military claimed 34 militants had been killed but tribal sources on the ground told Reuters the death toll was lower.

"My elder brother said he had personally seen militants shifting bodies of the slain fighters to upper Tirah from Sandasa and nearby villages," Abdur Rashid, a tribesman displaced by the fighting, told Reuters by telephone. "Local militants of Lashkar-e-Islam told them 20 people were killed."

Pakistan has blocked access to the region for journalists making it difficult to verify claims and counter claims in the region. Rights group say civilians, including women and children, are often killed in military operations.

The airstrikes occurred just days following two suicide attacks on churches in the eastern city of Lahore that killed 17 people, the latest daily attack targeting religious minorities.

Jamaat ul Ahrar, a Taliban-affiliated group, took responsibility and promised to continue to target Christians.

Islamabad's latest offensive in Khyber began last October with the aim of targeting the Pakistani Taliban and its allies that seek to overthrow the central government and impose fundamentalist Islamic rule.

Pakistan's tribal regions in the northwest are mountainous and remote, making them a favored hideout for Islamist militants following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

jar/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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