- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani helicopter gunships yesterday destroyed a religious school that the military said was fronting as an al Qaeda training camp, killing 80 persons in the country’s deadliest military operation targeting terrorism suspects.

Islamic leaders and al Qaeda-linked militants blamed the United States for the air strike and called for nationwide demonstrations to condemn the attack that flattened the school — known as a madrassa — and ripped apart those inside. Furious villagers and religious leaders said the pre-dawn missile barrage killed innocent students and teachers.

U.S. and Pakistani military officials denied American involvement.

Among those killed in the attack in the remote northwestern village of Chingai, two miles from the Afghan border, was a cleric who had sheltered militants and was thought to be associated with al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The raid threatens efforts by President Pervez Musharraf to persuade deeply conservative tribesmen to back his government over pro-Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, who have strong support in many semiautonomous regions in northern Pakistan. The planned signing of a peace deal between tribal leaders and the military was canceled yesterday in response to the air strike.

Gen. Musharraf has been under intense pressure, particularly from the United States and Afghanistan, to rein in militant groups, particularly along the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahri are thought to be hiding. The Pakistani leader, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, met with President Bush in Washington last month to address the issue.

Protests were held from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the southern city of Karachi, the largest occurring in Chingai and the Bajur district’s main town of Khar, where 2,000 tribesmen and shopkeepers chanted, “Death to Musharraf. Death to Bush.”

Fearing unrest, Britain’s Prince Charles, who arrived in Pakistan on Sunday for a five-day stay, canceled a visit planned for today to Peshawar.

The raid was launched after the madrassa’s leaders, headed by cleric Liaquat Hussain, rejected government warnings to stop using the school as a training camp for terrorists, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

“These militants were involved in actions inside Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan,” Gen. Sultan told the Associated Press.

Militant groups in Bajur are thought to ferry fighters, weapons and supplies to Afghanistan to target U.S. forces there and Pakistani soldiers on this side of the ethnic Pashtun majority tribal belt.

Gen. Sultan said 80 persons were killed in the building, which was 100 yards from the nearest house. Local political officials and Islamic leaders corroborated the death toll.

Gen. Sultan denied reports that al-Zawahri was in the area at the time of the attack. “It is all wrong, speculative, and we launched this operation on our own to target a training facility,” he said. A Bajur-area intelligence official said word was spreading among residents that al-Zawahri may have been expected at the madrassa, but he said the reports were wrong.

Hussain, the cleric thought to have been a deputy of al-Zawahri, was among those killed, the intelligence official and residents said.

Another al-Zawahri lieutenant, Faqir Mohammed, apparently left the madrassa 30 minutes before the strike, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Hours later, Mr. Mohammed addressed 10,000 mourners at a funeral for some of the victims.

“We were peaceful, but the government attacked and killed our innocent people on orders from America,” said Mr. Mohammed, who was surrounded by dozens of militants brandishing semiautomatic weapons. “It is an open aggression.”

Three funerals were held one after the other in a field near the madrassa, where the remains of at least 50 persons were laid on wooden beds placed side by side in rows and covered with colored blankets.

Villagers walked among the beds and offered prayers. Militants, their faces covered with brown and red scarves, patrolled the crowd.

On Saturday, Mr. Mohammed led a rally of 5,000 Taliban and al Qaeda supporters nearby, during which he denounced the Pakistani and U.S. governments and praised bin Laden.


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