- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahri, the target of an air strike that killed 18 persons in a border village, had been invited to a dinner in one of the ruined homes but did now show up, Pakistani intelligence officials said yesterday.

Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets yesterday to rage for a second day against the purported U.S. attack on the village of Damadola, chanting “Death to America” and demanding that U.S. troops leave neighboring Afghanistan.

About 10,000 people demonstrated in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, chanting “Death to America” and “Stop bombing against innocent people.” Hundreds also rallied in Islamabad, Lahore, Multan and Peshawar, burning U.S. flags.

The Pakistani intelligence officials said al-Zawahri, the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda, had been invited to the village for a dinner marking a Muslim festival in one of three houses struck by missiles on Friday night.

The officials pointed out that al-Zawahri has a wife from a tribe that is prominent in the region around Damadola. They said it was not clear why the terrorist leader did not appear, but one said he had sent aides instead, and that investigators were trying to determine whether they were in any of the houses when they were struck.

The officials agreed to discuss the situation only if their names were not used. They said their information came from Pakistan’s security agencies and intelligence shared by the CIA after the attack.

The U.S. government has not commented, but U.S. sources familiar with the operation said it was too early to determine al-Zawahri’s fate and said the remains of the dead would have to be examined.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency the air strike was based on “very good” intelligence indicating al-Zawahri was at the targeted location.

Pakistan says it does not allow American forces on its soil to attack or hunt militants. On Saturday, the government condemned the attack and lodged a diplomatic protest, saying it had killed civilians.

David Almacy, a White House spokesman, declined to comment directly on the air strike, saying only that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf “is a valued ally and partner in the war on terror, as is Pakistan.”

But Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and other American lawmakers defended the air strike.

“This war on terror has no boundaries,” Mr. McCain, a former Navy combat pilot, told CBS. “We have to go where these people are, and we have to take them out.”

In a sign of tensions over the attack, two top Pakistani officials — one from the military, the other from the civilian administration — said privately that the government was informed of the strike only after it occured.

However, Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat and member of the Senate intelligence committee, said he had “every reason to believe” high-ranking officials in the Pakistani government knew in advance.

One of the Pakistani intelligence officials said 12 bodies, including seven foreigners, had been taken from Damadola, which is about four miles from Afghanistan. He said the bodies were reclaimed by other militants, but another Pakistani official said Saturday that some were taken for DNA tests.

Residents of Damadola insisted that no militants were staying in the village and that all the dead were local people. But the high-level civilian Pakistani official said the government had been investigating reports that al-Zawahri had visited the region in recent months.

Ghafoor Ahmed, a leader in the coalition of Islamic groups that organized yesterday’s rallies, told demonstrators in Karachi that Gen. Musharraf should resign.

“The army cannot defend the country under his leadership,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Hundreds of riot police, wielding batons and shields, were deployed in Karachi, but the rally ended after an hour with no reports of violence.

On Saturday, about 8,000 tribesmen protested in a town near Damadola and a mob set fire to the office of a U.S.-backed aid agency in a nearby hamlet.

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