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Pakistan Attacks Militants After Bomb; 20 Dead

PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani jets and helicopter gunships killed 20 militants, residents and a military official have said, in an attack on a Taliban commander who claimed responsibility for a bombing last week.

Escalating militant violence has raised fears that nuclear-armed Pakistan, a U.S. ally whose cooperation is vital for efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, will fail to stop the spread of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Pakistani aircraft attacked three camps of Pakistani Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud in the Orakzai ethnic Pashtun tribal region, 170 kilometers west of Islamabad, on April 19, residents and a military official said.

"Our jets and helicopters attacked suspected hideouts of militants in the Ghiliju area and killed 20 militants," said a military official who declined to be identified.

Mehsud, an ally of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, claimed responsibility for a suicide car-bomb attack on a security convoy, near the town of Kohat, near Orakzai, on April 18. The bomber killed 25 soldiers and two passers-by.

Hakimullah Mehsud said the suicide attack was in response to attacks by missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on militant targets in northwest Pakistan. There was no information about Mehsud's fate in the April 19 air attacks.

Drones have killed about 350 people, including some midlevel Al-Qaeda leaders and many of their followers, in about 35 attacks since last year.

A resident of Ghiliju, Abdul Wakeel, said jets bombed a government school being used by Mehsud's militants as a training camp. He put the death toll at 22.

Orakzai had been one of Pakistan's most peaceful northwestern border regions, but Taliban are known to have infiltrated the area, as they they have done elsewhere in the northwest.

Residents said helicopter gunships also attacked the Tabori and Dabori areas of Orakzai on April 20.