- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

DAMADOLA, Pakistan — An air strike in a remote Pakistani tribal area killed at least 17 persons yesterday, and a senior Pakistani official said the target was a suspected al Qaeda hide-out that may have been frequented by the No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

Citing unidentified American intelligence officials, U.S. television networks reported that it was a CIA strike and that al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant, could have been at the compound in the Bajur area or about to arrive.

There was no confirmation from either the Pakistani or U.S. government, but a senior Pakistani government official told the Associated Press that “there is 50-50 chance that some al Qaeda personality was at the home” that was hit.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said today he had heard that the al Qaeda figure may have been al-Zawahri and that the information would be clearer later today.

In Pakistan, the military only confirmed to the AP that there had been explosions in a remote village near the Afghan border, but could not confirm the cause or casualties. A spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf said the incident was still being investigated.

“I am not in a position to say yes or no. We know that media is reporting it, but we have no such information, or any details. We are still investigating this matter,” Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told the AP today.

In Washington, Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and intelligence officials all said they had no information on the reports concerning al-Zawahri.

An AP reporter who visited the scene about 12 hours after what villagers said was an air strike saw three destroyed houses, hundreds of yards apart.

Villagers, who denied links to the Taliban or al Qaeda militants, had buried at least 15 persons, including women and children, and were digging for more bodies in the rubble. There were no security forces in the area.

In Kabul, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Mike Cody said he had no reports on yesterday’s attack.

Residents of Damadola, a hillside hamlet about four miles inside northwestern Pakistan, said they heard aircraft overhead before bombs or missiles crashed through the Pashtun tribal village — blasts that were felt miles away.

Wreckage from the three houses destroyed was scattered in craters some 10 feet deep. Five women were weeping nearby, cursing the attackers. Dozens of others gathered to express condolences.

The attack was the latest in a series of strikes on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan, unexplained by authorities but widely believed to target terror suspects or Islamic militants.

Al-Zawahri has appeared regularly over the Internet and in the Arab press, encouraging Muslims to attack Americans and U.S. interests worldwide. Like bin Laden, his whereabouts had been unknown since the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began.

But he has continued to spread his message, including in a videotape broadcast Jan. 6 that said the United States’ decision to withdraw some troops from Iraq represented “the victory of Islam.”

In September, al-Zawahri said his terror network was responsible for the bombings in July that killed 52 persons on London’s transit system.

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