MIRANSHAH, Pakistan: Pakistani troops pounded suspected militant hideouts in a lawless tribal district for a third day Friday, as the death toll rose to 40 and local residents claimed the operation had left a number of civilians dead.
Clashes between security forces and militants have been rocking North Waziristan district, on the Afghan border, since Wednesday evening when a suicide bombing killed five soldiers at a checkpoint in the town of Mir Ali.
Militants attacked security forces on Wednesday as they returned after rescuing soldiers wounded in the bombing, prompting the military respond with mortars, artillery and helicopter gunships in a search operation to catch the insurgents.
The death toll from the clashes rose to at least 40 on Friday as four more bodies were recovered from the debris of two hotels that came under heavy fire after fleeing militants used them to take refuge.
The military says all of those killed in the operation were Taliban militants, but locals said many of those who died in the hotels were drivers forced to stay there by a curfew imposed on Tuesday.
Nazir Khan Wazir, the member of parliament for the area, said most of those killed and wounded were not militants.
"Most of those killed and wounded were innocent civilians. People are facing a terrible time. They are trapped in their houses," Wazir told AFP.
"Dozens of houses have been damaged by shelling. Residents are also facing food shortages."
Wazir appealed to the government to stop the bombardment to allow locals to bury their dead and take the wounded to hospital.
The number and identity of those killed could not be verified independently because of the ongoing search operation and curfew. The area is also off-limits to foreign journalists and aid groups.
Exchange of fire was also took place late Thursday at Amin checking point in Miranshah, the main town but with no lose of life.
A senior security official said the search operation was still going on in Mir Ali and surrounding areas.
Maulvi Gul Abbas, an Islamic cleric in Mirali told AFP that residents were not able to sleep for the whole night because of the continuous firing.
"Dozens of houses have been damaged. All those killed inside the houses were local residents," Abbas said.
North Waziristan is a major hub for Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked militants in northwest Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal districts.
The region is the focus of the US campaign of drone strikes targeting insurgents, but sustained fighting of the sort seen in recent days is unusual.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan insurgent group has led a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state in recent years, carrying out hundreds of attacks on security forces and government targets, mainly in the northwest.