Pakistanis protest U.S. airstrike
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 9:24 p.m.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Pakistan's government on Saturday condemned a deadly U.S. airstrike on a village in the northwestern tribal region, and a Pakistani security official said he was confident that Ayman al-Zawahri, the No. 2 leader of al-Qaeda and the target of the strike, had not been in the village when it was hit.
In criticizing the attack, Pakistan's information minister, Sheik Rashid Ahmed, spoke in general terms and avoided blaming the United States specifically. The Associated Press quoted him as saying that the government wanted "to assure the people we will not allow such incidents to reoccur."
Local officials in the Bajaur district, which includes the village Damadola, where the airstrike occurred, said 18 civilians were killed in the attack, including six children. But the Pakistani security official who spoke of al-Zawahri seemed to suggest that the death toll was higher, and he said that at least 11 militants were killed in the attack. Seven of the dead were Arab fighters, and another four were Pakistani militants from Punjab Province, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media.
The official said that the bodies of the Arabs were pulled from the rubble and taken away within an hour of the strikes by a local Muslim cleric, Maulavi Liaqat. A second cleric, Maulavi Atta Muhammad, took away the Pakistanis, he said.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they believe that the attack was carried out by a remotely piloted Predator aircraft armed with missiles in the early morning hours on Friday. On Saturday, a Central Intelligence Agency spokesman declined to comment on any raid that might have taken place. The agency is known to operate armed Predator aircraft, but the missions remain classified and are not generally acknowledged by the CIA.
Blair Jones, a spokesman for the White House, said Saturday that he had no information on the incident.
Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's ruler, mentioned the attacks during a meeting on Saturday with officials from the town of Sawabi, according to a local reporter. Musharraf was quoted as saying: "We are looking into it, as to who has done it. We are looking into it, that there were people who came from outside."
In a speech to gathered townspeople, Musharraf warned that aiding militants was dangerous. "If we harbor foreign terrorists, those who carry out bomb blasts throughout the world, then remember that our future is not good," he said. "People should not side with foreign militants, they should tell us about them so we take action against them," he said.
Later at a meeting with local councilors, Musharraf said the authorities were investigating who was behind the strikes, but also the presence of foreign militants in the village.
In the town of Khaar, the central administrative center of Bajaur, thousands of tribesmen, led by a local parliamentarian, protested the killings on Saturday, chanting anti-American and anti-government slogans.
After the rally dispersed, 800 to 900 men went on the rampage and attacked the offices of two nongovernmental organizations in the town, according to a local reporter. The crowd looted computers from an U.S.-financed aid organization, called BEST, and then set the entire compound ablaze. The office of an Italian aid group, Intersos, was smashed and looted before the authorities intervened.
On Saturday, the Pakistani security official described some of the intelligence surrounding the airstrike. He said that a dinner at which al-Zawahri was expected had been planned for Thursday night. The cleric Maulavi Liaqat was also at the dinner, but he left around midnight, the official said.
A second U.S. official who acknowledged that al-Zawahri had been the target of the strike said it was probably too soon to know for certain whether or not he had been at the scene. The U.S. official acknowledged that intelligence was often imperfect, but said U.S. operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region reflected a continuing, intensive effort to track down al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden and their followers.
In a radio interview last month, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, declined to discuss raids in detail, but said "there's an awful lot of pressure" on senior Qaida leaders.
"Whenever there's pressure, which means the more you talk, the more you move, the more you do anything, the more vulnerable you become," Redd said.
Redd also pointed out in the interview that bin Laden had not made a public statement in more than a year and said "there are a lot of theories" as to what that might mean. He declined to elaborate.
The Pakistani security official said that U.S. and Pakistani intelligence have been hunting al-Zawahri in Bajaur for the past six months. Unlike bin Laden, who has stayed out of public view, al-Zawahri has been vocal, releasing several videotapes and audio tapes with messages for his followers and containing threats of further attacks on Western interests. He is also thought by intelligence officials to move around the region more than bin Laden does, making him somewhat easier to track.
Al-Zawahri has a wife who is a Pashtun from the Momand tribe and he has been known to visit her and their two children at the home of his father-in-law on the border between the districts of Bajaur and Momand, the official said. He is also known to have visited different parts of Bajaur where Arabs and other militants are active in training and mounting insurgent operations across the border into Afghanistan.
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