MIRANSHAH, Pakistan: Fighter jets bombarded Taliban hideouts in northwest Pakistan Tuesday, killing at least 30 people according to security sources, in what analysts called an operation to reassert military dominance after peace talks stalled.
The morning attacks on the North and South Waziristan tribal districts were the fourth set of raids since February 20. More than 100 alleged militants have now died, the sources said.
Experts say the air raids are designed to give the military the upper hand if peace talks, which were suspended last week, resume. They said the army was probably not yet prepared to launch a full-fledged ground operation in the area.
Independent verification of the death toll has not been possible, as it is difficult for journalists to enter the area and civilian administrators are reluctant to comment.
The focus of Tuesday's attacks, which also involved helicopter gunships, was mostly the mountainous Shawal valley and Datta Khel in North Waziristan, and Sararogha in neighbouring South Waziristan, the officials said.
Residents and officials in the northwest said hundreds of families have fled their homes.
"People are leaving the area after a deadlock in peace talks," a resident of Miranshah told AFP by telephone, requesting anonymity.
They are taking shelter with relatives in Peshawar and other cities further away from the border, residents said.
Earlier this month Pakistan entered into talks with the Taliban in an attempt to end their seven-year insurgency which has cost thousands of lives.
But the militant group continued carrying out attacks on a near-daily basis.
Dialogue was suspended and air attacks began after the insurgents claimed last week they had executed 23 kidnapped soldiers in a northwestern tribal region.
Senior Taliban commander Asmatullah Shaheen, a former interim chief of the militants, was meanwhile buried in the northwest on Tuesday.
Shaheen, who had a 10-million-rupee ($95,000) price on his head, was shot dead in Miranshah on Monday. Officials blamed the killing on internal rivalries.
- 'Position of strength' -
Retired general and security analyst Talat Masood said the military may be attempting to strengthen its position if talks eventually resume.
"The peace process if at all it continues now would be from a position of strength and not from a position of weakness. For some time it looked like (the Taliban) had the upper hand. These attacks change that," he said.
But despite the show of force, experts say the Pakistani military is not set to expand the operation with boots on the ground.
Such a move would require much planning with help from US and Afghan forces on the other side of the border, as well as a contingency plan for the massive upheaval of refugees, Masood said.
"In all probability they will engage in limited but forceful or targeted strikes for some time to weaken and push the militants," he said.
Imtiaz Gul, another security analyst, said: "Targeted strikes will continue in the near future also, they will neither end nor expand."
Negotiators for both the government and Taliban meanwhile told AFP the door for further dialogue remains open.
Professor Muhammad Ibrahim, a member of the Taliban talks team, said: "I don't rule out the possibility of resumption of talks at any stage."
"We will keep appealing to both the government and the Taliban to stop following the path of violence and resume the stalled dialogue."
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a member of the government team, said the process could resume if the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire without preconditions and explained the deaths of the abducted soldiers.