Officials: Pakistan helicopters kill 9 militants

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani helicopter gunships targeted a militant training facility in the country's northwest on Saturday, killing nine insurgents in the latest violence to disrupt troubled peace negotiations, according to police and security officials.

The strikes came as a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban rejected a government demand that the militant movement halt attacks, saying the government should be first announce a cease-fire.

Underscoring the militants' refusal to stop attacks, a roadside bomb hit a vehicle carrying a pro-government elder in the northwestern town of Buner, killing him and two of his guards, police official Javed Khan said.

The military launched Saturday morning's strikes after confirming reports about the presence of militants at a compound in the village of Thal in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, two security officials and a local police officer said. They said the identity of the slain men was not immediately known and agents were trying to get details.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.

It was the third such strike in recent days.

On Wednesday and Thursday, officials said, Pakistani aircraft killed 20 suspected militants in the country's troubled North Waziristan and Khyber tribal regions.

The strikes follow a breakdown in negotiations between the government and the Pakistan Taliban earlier this week.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long favored peace talks over military action to end the bloodshed in the northwest, but he is also under pressure from critics to retaliate for any Taliban violence.

Peace efforts suffered a setback when a bombing claimed by the Pakistan Taliban last week killed 12 police officers in the port city of Karachi, and a few days later a faction of the Taliban also claimed they killed 23 soldiers on Sunday in reprisal for the killing of some of their members.

After that, a government-appointed committee that had traveled to North Waziristan to meet Taliban delegates announced that they couldn't continue the talks unless the militants renounced violence.

The Pakistani Taliban for their part, insist they would agree to a cease-fire only if government negotiators could assure them there would be no more killings of their members. They have also demanded the release of women and children, which they claim were in government custody.

Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told a group of journalists in North Waziristan on Friday that they were still in favor of "serious negotiations." But he said the movement would not declare a unilateral cease-fire, saying the first step should come from the government.

"We cannot take the first step to announce the cease-fire," he said. Shahid said.

Further complicating negotiations, a Pakistan army spokesman denied Taliban claims about detainees, saying not a single woman or child was in the custody of the security agencies.

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Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in North Waziristan, Hussain Afzal in Parachinar and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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