Pakistani Airstrikes Kill 70 Civilians Instead of Militants

Pakistani government makes $125,000 payments to victims' families.

KABUL, Afghanistan April 13, 2010— -- A Pakistani airstrike has killed as many as 70 civilians, according to a local resident, one of the worst mistakes made by the Pakistani military in its war against militants along the Afghanistan border.

The Pakistani military, like the United States military in Afghanistan, acknowledges civilian casualty incidents undercut support for their efforts and help push local residents to support the militants.

The airstrikes occurred on Saturday afternoon when Pakistani jets twice bombed a house the military believed was hosting a tribal meeting of militants, according to the local resident, who declined to be identified.

The house was supposed to host a meeting convened by Mangal Bagh, one of the most powerful militants in the region and the target of a recent military operation.

But at the last minute, the meeting was canceled, the resident said, and the house was full of civilians instead.

The first airstrike destroyed the house and when residents rushed to the scene to help the victims, a second airstrike killed dozens more.

A military official who declined to be named acknowledged, "There is a possibility of a bomb going astray which could have killed a few civilians," but denied the number could be as high as 70.

The jets were targeting militant bunkers close to inhabited areas, the official said, and so "there is also the possibility of human error" by the pilots.

A government official in the Khyber tribal territory where the airstrikes took place has already handed out $125,000 to compensate victims of the dead, according to the Associated Press.

"These large scale incidents aren't that typical in Pakistan," said Chris Rogers, who works for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. The majority of civilian casualty incidents in Pakistan, Rogers said, occur in small incidents.

Either way, they are among the most damaging instances of mistakes in targeting for a government and military trying to fight an insurgency.

"The government is trying to extend control and build a government that people see as legitimate and respected. You can't do that if you're killing large swaths of people," Rogers says. "They're going to be a lot less willing to provide intelligence and cooperate in the ways that the military needs them to in order to clear the area of militants."