Pakistan fighter jets bombed suspected Taliban hideouts in a tribal area on the Afghan border on Tuesday after a wave of insurgent attacks against security forces, sending villagers fleeing from their homes, military sources and residents said.
It was the first time the air force has resorted to aerial strikes in the region since it struck a ceasefire agreement with local Taliban chiefs in 2007.
Residents of North Waziristan, a lawless mountainous region where many al Qaeda-linked militants are based, said there were numerous civilian casualties but the army was not immediately available to comment on the operation.
"Can you hear the noise of the gunships? They are just over our heads," Haji Jamaludin, a local resident, told Reuters by telephone from the area. "Everyone in the village is running around with children and women looking for a safe place to hide."
The air strikes took place as pressure grows on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take tougher action against the Taliban following the attacks. The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the central government in Islamabad and impose strict Islamic rule in the nuclear armed South Asian nation.
Sparking speculation that a military operation was imminent, Sharif cancelled his trip to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos on Sunday following a Taliban attack on an army convoy in which 20 soldiers were killed.
"This hadn't been planned before, and Pakistan air force fighter jets were called to hit hideouts of the militants involved in attacks on security forces," said a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Military officials said fighter jets were targeting only militant positions around the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. Following a wave of fighter jets strikes, the army later called in helicopter gunships to shell suspected hideouts.
Residents said bombardment started overnight without any warning. Tribal elder Malik Jan Mohammad in the Mir Ali area said 15 people were killed. A Taliban source put the death toll at 27, including civilians.
"We were all asleep when the planes started bombing the village," said Khyal Zaman, a tribesman from the village of Esori. "We had no idea what happened in the dark and those who survived came out of their homes in desperation along with children and started walking away into the open."
Sharif, who came to power promising to make peace with the Taliban though talks and not military action, has been under growing pressure both from the US and hawks in the Pakistani army to do more to crush the insurgency. No meaningful talks have taken place for years.
The death of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a November drone strike has further enraged the Taliban, with its new leader, Mullah Fazlullah, vowing to step up his campaign against the army.