- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s president told a senior American official yesterday the United States must not repeat air strikes such as the one last week apparently aimed at al Qaeda terrorists.

That strike also killed civilians in a remote Pakistani village, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf and other officials sought to soothe public outrage.

Also yesterday, two Pakistani intelligence officials said a captured al Qaeda leader informed interrogators that he had met Ayman al-Zawahri, top deputy of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, last year at one of the three houses hit by the U.S. attack.

Gen. Musharraf assured visiting Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns that Pakistan would not waver in its support for the global war on terrorism, but said such air strikes must not be repeated, a Foreign Ministry official said.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Gen. Musharraf told Mr. Burns: “What happened in Bajur must not be repeated.”

Gen. Musharraf apparently was referring to Pakistan’s long-standing policy of prohibiting the 20,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan from pursuing militants across the border into Pakistan or attacking them in his country without permission.

Government officials have said they were not informed ahead of time about the Jan. 13 attack in the mountainous Bajur tribal region. The U.S. air strike prompted nationwide protests calling for Gen. Musharraf’s ouster.

The comments were Gen. Musharraf’s first publicized reaction to the air strike on the village of Damadola, near the border with Afghanistan. It is believed to have killed at least four of al-Zawahri’s close associates and 13 or more civilians, including women and children.

[An audio recording of bin Laden surfaced Thursday, six days later, on which al Qaeda’s top leader made new terror threats against the United States, as well as offered a “truce.”

[It was the first public statement by bin Laden since December 2004. That is the longest stretch the terrorist leader had gone publicly silent since the attacks of September 11, 2001, which he set in motion.

[Another audio tape surfaced Friday, this one apparently of al-Zawahri but perhaps not a recent recording.

[Intelligence officials said analysts were scrutinizing the tapes for clues — including certain words and phrases — that might be a signal for the terrorist network’s members or followers.]

Pakistani officials believe at least four foreign militants died in last week’s attack, including Egyptian Midhat Mursi, an al Qaeda explosives and chemical-weapons specialist, and a son-in-law of al-Zawahri. Mursi, who has a $5 million bounty on his head, is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri also delivered a message to Mr. Burns, similar to the one from Gen. Musharraf, when they met later yesterday in the capital, Islamabad.

Mr. Burns had met Gen. Musharraf at his office in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near Islamabad. A ministry statement issued afterward did not mention the president’s comments on the air strike. Instead, it said Gen. Musharraf expressed gratitude for Washington’s assistance in relief efforts for the Oct. 8 earthquake that devastated the country’s north.

Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, lodged a protest over the air strike because it angered many in this Islamic nation of 150 million.

Pakistan’s independent GEO television reported that Gen. Musharraf warned Mr. Burns that repeated attacks could affect cooperation in the war on terrorism.

Mr. Burns, whose visit was scheduled before the Damadola attack, was in Pakistan to talk about security and earthquake relief.

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