- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

CHINGAI, Pakistan (AP) — Soldiers backed by missile-firing helicopters struck a religious school purportedly being used as an al Qaeda training center today, killing 80 persons in what appeared to be the country’s deadliest-ever attack against suspected militants.

The country’s top Islamic political leader said American planes were used in the pre-dawn strike against the school — known as a madrassa — and called for nationwide protests tomorrow, claiming all those killed were innocent students and teachers. A U.S. military official denied any involvement in the attack in northwestern Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

An al Qaeda-linked militant who apparently was a primary target of the strike had left the building a half hour beforehand, a Pakistani official said.

Anger over the missile strike scuppered the signing of a peace accord, expected today, among tribal elders linked to militants. The United States has urged President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to do more to stop militants from crossing from tribal regions into Afghanistan, where Taliban-fanned violence has reached its deadliest proportions since the American-led invasion in 2001.

Gen. Musharraf, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, met with President Bush last month in Washington to address the issue.

Helicopter gunships fired four to five missiles into the madrassa in Chingai, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. The blasts tore apart the building and all inside, spraying body parts, blood and debris across a wide area.

Gen. Sultan said initial estimates indicate the attack killed about 80 suspected militants from Pakistan and other countries. Just three persons — all seriously wounded — were believed to have survived, a hospital official said.

“These militants were involved in actions inside Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan,” Gen. Sultan said in an interview.

He said the attack was staged after those in charge of the building refused warnings to close it down.

Among those killed was Liaquat Hussain, a Pakistani cleric and associate of al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, locals and an intelligence official said. Another al-Zawahri deputy, Faqir Mohammed, was believed to have been in the madrassa and left 30 minutes before the strike, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Islamabad, Qazi Hussain Ahmed — an opposition political leader — blamed the United States for the attack and said claims that the madrassa was a terrorist training center were “rubbish.” Thirty children were among the dead, he claimed.

“It was an American plane behind the attack, and Pakistan is taking responsibility because they know there would be a civil war if the American responsibility was known,” Mr. Ahmed said.

In Afghanistan, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Matt Hackathorn denied the United States was involved in the strike. “It was completely done by the Pakistani military,” he said.

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