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Airstrikes by US draw protests from pakistanis { January 15 2006 }

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January 15, 2006
Airstrike by U.S. Draws Protests From Pakistanis

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan. 14 - Pakistan's government on Saturday condemned a deadly American airstrike on a village in the northwestern tribal region, and a Pakistani security official said he was confident that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 leader of Al Qaeda and the target of the strike, had not been in the village when it was hit.

In criticizing the attack, Pakistan's information minister, Sheik Rashid Ahmed, spoke in general terms and avoided blaming the United States specifically. The Associated Press quoted him as saying that the government wanted "to assure the people we will not allow such incidents to reoccur."

Local officials in the Bajaur district, which includes the village Damadola, where the airstrike happened, said 18 civilians were killed in the attack, including six children. But the Pakistani security official who spoke of Mr. Zawahiri seemed to suggest that the death toll was higher, and he said that at least 11 militants were killed in the attack. Seven of the dead were Arab fighters, and another four were Pakistani militants from Punjab Province, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media.

The official said that the bodies of the Arabs were pulled from the rubble and taken away within an hour of the strikes by a local Muslim cleric, Maulavi Liaqat. A second cleric, Maulavi Atta Muhammad, took away the Pakistanis, he said.

American and Pakistani officials have said they believe that the attack was carried out by a remotely piloted Predator aircraft armed with missiles in the early morning hours on Friday. On Saturday, a Central Intelligence Agency spokesman declined to comment on any raid that might have taken place. The agency is known to operate armed Predator aircraft, but the missions remain classified and are not generally acknowledged by the C.I.A.

Blair Jones, a spokesman for the White House, said Saturday that he had no information on the incident.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan mentioned the attacks during a meeting on Saturday with officials from the town of Sawabi, according to a local reporter. He was quoted as saying: "We are looking into it, as to who has done it. We are looking into it, that there were people who came from outside."

In a speech to gathered townspeople, he warned that aiding militants was dangerous. "If we harbor foreign terrorists, those who carry out bomb blasts throughout the world, then remember that our future is not good," he said. "People should not side with foreign militants, they should tell us about them so we take action against them," he said.

Later at a meeting with local councilors, he said the authorities were investigating who was behind the strikes, but also the presence of foreign militants in the village. "There was an incident in Bajaur," he said. "We are looking into it, as to who has done it. We are looking into it, that there were people who came from outside."

Thousands of tribesmen, led by a local parliamentarian, protested the killings on Saturday, chanting anti-American and anti-government slogans in the town of Khaar, the central administrative center of Bajaur. After the rally dispersed, 800 to 900 men went on the rampage and attacked the offices of two nongovernmental organizations in the town, according to a local reporter. The crowd looted computers from an American-financed aid organization, called BEST, and then torched the entire compound. The office of another Italian aid group, Intersos, was smashed and looted before the authorities intervened.

On Saturday, the Pakistani security official described some of the intelligence surrounding the airstrike. He said that a dinner at which Mr. Zawahiri was expected had been planned for Thursday night. The cleric Maulavi Liaqat was also at the dinner, but he left around midnight, the official said.

A second American official who acknowledged that Mr. Zawahiri had been the target of the strike said it was probably too soon to know for certain whether or not he had been at the scene. The American official acknowledged that intelligence was often imperfect, but said American operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region reflected a continuing, intensive effort to track down Mr. Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden and their followers.

In a radio interview last month, Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, retired, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, declined to discuss the raids in detail but said "there's an awful lot of pressure" on senior Qaeda leaders.

"Whenever there's pressure, which means the more you talk, the more you move, the more you do anything, the more vulnerable you become," Admiral Redd said.

Admiral Redd also pointed out in the interview that Mr. bin Laden had not made a public statement in more than a year and said "there are a lot of theories" as to what that might mean. He declined to elaborate.

The Pakistani security official said that American and Pakistani intelligence have been hunting Mr. Zawahiri in Bajaur for the past six months. Unlike Mr. bin Laden, who has stayed out of public view, Mr. Zawahiri has been vocal, releasing several videotapes and audio tapes with messages for his followers and containing threats of further attacks on Western interests. He is also thought by intelligence officials to move around the region more than Mr. bin Laden does, making him somewhat easier to track.

Mr. Zawahiri has a wife who is a Pashtun from the Momand tribe and he has been known to visit her and their two children at the home of his father-in-law on the border between the districts of Bajaur and Momand, the official said. He is also known to have visited different parts of Bajaur where Arabs and other militants are active in training and mounting insurgent operations across the border into Afghanistan.

Damadola, the village hit by missiles, has been the focus of previous security operations. The Pakistani authorities carried out an operation in the village in April 2004 against a cleric, Maulavi Faqir Mohammad, whom they blamed for giving sanctuary to militants. The maulavi has been at large since, but turned up on Friday and spoke at the funeral of the civilian dead, denouncing the strike, local residents said. He left the area immediately afterward.

Saturday was the second time in two weeks that the Pakistani government has condemned what was thought to be an American attack on its soil. Eight people, including women and children, were reported killed on Jan. 7 when missiles destroyed the house of a local cleric in North Waziristan close to the Afghan border. Pakistan lodged a strong protest with coalition forces on Monday, but said it was still investigating whether the missiles had been fired from Pakistani airspace or from Afghan territory.

There have been a number of incidents of civilian deaths in failed or misdirected American attacks in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan. In July 2002, dozens of Afghans at a wedding party were killed in an American bombing raid. Witnesses said the guests were firing celebratory rounds into the air, while the Americans said they had come under antiaircraft fire. After that incident, the United States appeared to restrict air assaults for a time.

In December 2003, nine children and a 25-year-old man were killed in a strike from a Predator in Hutala, a village in a remote area of southern Ghazni Province. The intended target, a Taliban supporter who was suspected of being behind several attacks on foreign aid and construction workers, was not among the dead and may have not been in the village at the time.

The American military command expressed regret for the killings and sent officers to the village to apologize. President Hamid Karzai said he was "profoundly shocked" and demanded that the United States forces coordinate their attacks with the Afghan government in the future.

Douglas Jehl contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Mohammad Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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