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Pakistan jets pound militant hideouts, killing 38

By Jibran Ahmed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani fighter jets attacked suspected militant hideouts in tribal areas on the Afghan border on Sunday, killing at least 38 insurgents, officials said, in the third air strike in recent days.

The raids came after peace negotiations with Taliban insurgents broke down last week and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif authorized the army on February 20 to attack militants in the volatile region on the Afghan border.

"Fighter jets pounded training facilities of the terrorists in Tirah valley early on Sunday," said one military official.

He said the facilities destroyed had been used to train suicide bombers and make explosives.

"There are confirmed reports that 38 terrorists including some important commanders were killed," said another security official, adding that at least six hideouts were destroyed.

There were no immediate reports of civilian casualties.

Despite the violence, both sides insist they are still open for negotiations. Many observers are skeptical about peace talks with a group which has killed 40,000 people since 2007.

The Sunni Islamist Taliban told the government last week there was no chance of peace in the country unless Pakistan changed its political and legal system and officially embraced Islamic law.

This year has been marked by a surge in violence and Sharif is under intense pressure from hawks in the armed forces to mount a tougher military response against the militants.

Speculation has been growing that the armed forces might be preparing for a big ground and air offensive against the insurgents based in the North Waziristan region, but so far operations have been limited to short aerial raids.

On Saturday, at least nine people were killed in helicopter gunship raids in Hangu district. On February 20, 15 died when fighter jets bombed the Mir Ali area of the tribal belt straddling the Afghan border.

As violence spread, at least eight people, mainly minority Shi'ite Muslims, were killed in an explosion in the northwestern district of Kohat on Sunday, police said.

(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud and Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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