- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DAMADOLA, Pakistan — Pakistani officials harshly condemned a reported U.S. missile attack targeting al Qaeda’s deputy leader, saying yesterday that the terrorist mastermind was not present and that 18 persons, including children, died in the strike near the Afghan border.

Pakistani officials said earlier indications from U.S. intelligence sources that Ayman al-Zawahri may have died in the missile raid Friday were “not true.”

Tensions remained high near the village of Damadola, the site of the attack in the Bajur tribal area on the Afghan border, after police tear-gassed thousands of protesters who torched a U.S.-funded aid agency office yesterday.

“We are the victims of infidel forces, and God will destroy the infidels,” said weeping villager Mohammad Rahim Khan, 70. His three grandchildren were killed in one of the three blasts reported by residents.

“The U.S. cannot do this without Pakistan’s support. We are leaving it to God to give us justice,” said the children’s father, Mohammed Khan, 35.

Residents said five women and five children were among the dead and that all were tribe members, although the death toll and the identities of the dead have not yet all been established.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the top Pakistani religious-based party, called for a nationwide strike today in protest at the deaths.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it had summoned U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker yesterday and handed him a formal protest about the incident.

“According to preliminary investigations, there was foreign presence in the area and that, in all probability, was targeted from across the border in Afghanistan,” the ministry said in a prepared statement. “As a result of this act, there has been loss of innocent civilian lives, which we condemn.”

Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the missile raid was “highly condemnable.”

In Khar, the main town in the Bajur area and close to Damadola, an estimated 5,000 people demonstrating against the killings yesterday were dispersed by police firing tear gas shells.

The formal protest is the second lodged by Pakistan with its key “war on terror” ally this month for incursions into its tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

The Pentagon, however, denied that the U.S. military had made any attacks in the area. Pakistan forbids military operations by foreign forces in its territory.

Intelligence sources told Agence France-Presse that the CIA had unconfirmed indications that a key target, possibly al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy and chief ideologue, died in a raid by a U.S. Predator drone.

Citing U.S. defense sources, NBC News said the strike had targeted the 55-year-old al-Zawahri, but senior Pakistani government and intelligence officials said al-Zawahri was thought not to have been in the area at the time of the air strike.

The CIA is known to conduct operations along the Afghan border in the hunt for bin Laden and his deputies.

Survivors in Damadola denied militants were in their hamlet, but news reports quoted unidentified Pakistani officials as saying up to 11 extremists were thought to have been killed in the air strike.

A Pakistani intelligence officer told the Associated Press some bodies were taken away for DNA tests. He did not say who would do the tests, but a law-enforcement official in Washington said the FBI expected to conduct DNA tests to determine victims’ identities, although Pakistan had not yet formally requested them.

Two senior Pakistani security officials confirmed to the AP that al-Zawahri was the intended target and said Pakistan’s assessment was that the CIA acted on incorrect information. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Many in this nation of 150 million people object to President Pervez Musharraf’s alliance with Washington in the war on international terrorist groups, seeing it as a veiled campaign against Islam.

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