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By Haji Mujtaba
MIRANSHAH, May 21 (Reuters) - Pakistani fighter jets bombed suspected militant hideouts in the tribal region of North Waziristan near the Afghan border on Wednesday, killing dozens of people, the army said.
Disagreement over how to handle the Taliban insurgency lies at the heart of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's increasingly chilly relationship with Pakistan's powerful army, which has been pushing for a major military offensive against militants.
Sharif has been trying to engage the Taliban in talks and avoid military action but negotiations have failed repeatedly since he came to power a year ago. It was unclear whether Sharif had authorised the latest air strikes.
"As per reports so far, 60 hardcore terrorists, including some of the important commanders and foreigners, were also killed in the strikes and around 30 were injured," the army's press wing said in a statement.
Despite Sharif's insistence on talks, the military has carried out a series of brief air raids in the region, such as Wednesday's attack, which did not appear to signal the start of a broader campaign in North Waziristan.
The military has ruled the South Asian nation for more than half of its coup-prone history since independence in 1947 but Sharif has been trying to reassert civilian authority.
As negotiations with a fractured and increasingly violent Taliban movement have floundered in recent months, speculation has grown that the army is seeking to gain the upper hand and opt for an all-out ground and air force military operation.
The Taliban themselves have been in disarray, rocked by weeks of bloody infighting between supporters of Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah and senior commander Khan "Sajna" Said.
Verifying information on the ground is next to impossible because journalists and independent observers are not allowed to operate freely there. Residents described scenes of chaos as bombs fell on villages in the middle of the night.
"Civilian casualties are feared," an intelligence source told Reuters.
North Waziristan residents said dozens of houses used as hideouts by the militants had been targeted.
"It was around 3 a.m. in the morning when I heard huge explosions," tribesman Naseeb Gul told Reuters by telephone.
"I saw four helicopters flying over the area and hitting some villages."
Another tribesman said local authorities had asked people to stay indoors, warning them not to violate a curfew that forced the closure of all roads, schools and markets. (Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar Writing by Maria Golovnina)
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