Pakistan Strike Called Response To U.S. Reports
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
A missile strike that killed close to 80 people at an Islamic school in Pakistan early Monday was launched because of U.S. intelligence reports that senior al-Qaeda figures were hiding there, Pakistani intelligence officials said. The strike generated angry protests by religious and tribal leaders, who accused the government of doing Washington's bidding at the cost of Pakistani lives.
The country's major Islamic party charged that U.S. military planes carried out the attack, which demolished the school, located near the border with Afghanistan. Pakistani and U.S. military officials denied that, saying the raid was the work of Pakistani helicopter gunships and forces, though U.S. intelligence had prompted it.
"This was a training camp, and they had been warned to stop their activities," said Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington. "They did not pay heed, so they were hit by our gunships and all the people there were killed. There will be a lot of unhappy or misguided people saying we are killing our own people for the sake of the Americans, but we had a commitment to fight terrorism on our soil, and we made a decision."
Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are widely believed to be hiding in the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border region, home to fiercely independent tribal peoples. Afghan officials also contend that Pakistan's side of the border is serving as a sanctuary for newly aggressive Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
The attack in the Bajaur tribal district near the village of Khar caused the highest number of deaths of any single anti-extremist attack in Pakistan since 2001, when Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, agreed to side with the United States to help overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The raid on the Islamic studies school, known as a madrassa, seemed to represent an abrupt shift from the Musharraf government's recent policy of seeking peaceful negotiations with extremists in the border regions. In the past several months, two peace deals were signed in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan after sustained attacks there by the Pakistani military drew strong local opposition and caused heavy casualties on both sides.
A third such agreement was due to be signed in Bajaur this week, but it seemed almost certain to collapse now. Monday's events are bound to compound problems for Musharraf, whose domestic political support has been steadily eroding.
"What a stupid operation, just one day before an accord between the local Taliban and the government. It has killed the entire spirit and the peaceful atmosphere in the tribal areas," said Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khan, who heads one of two major religious parties in parliament. Protesters who turned out in many towns Monday pledged to return to the streets Tuesday.
A similar strike occurred in January, when U.S. missiles devastated a nearby compound that authorities believed Zawahiri was visiting. Officials initially denied, then acknowledged, reports that a U.S. drone had carried out the strike, which killed 18 people. The incident set off protests across Pakistan and forced the Musharraf government to publicly condemn the U.S. action.
Among those killed Monday was Maulana Liaquat, an Islamic cleric allied with al-Qaeda who is believed to have hosted a dinner for Zawahiri in January that led to the missile strike in Damadola village. At a mass funeral for Liaquat and his followers Monday afternoon, news agencies reported, thousands of armed men shouted, "Down with Musharraf! Down with Bush!"
Some religious politicians from the area rejected the official version of events, saying it bore strong similarities to the January attack.
"Exactly like Damadola, there was a big flare before a missile hit the madrassa with a huge bang. Several minutes later, Pakistan army gunship helicopters appeared on the horizon firing aimlessly," said Sahibzada Haroon-ur Rashid, the local member of parliament from the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party. "I don't have an iota of doubt that the missile was fired from an American drone."