Friday, January 19, 2007; 10:32 AM
SALAMAT GHUNDI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Defending its credibility, Pakistan's military on Friday rebutted claims that a U.S. Predator drone aircraft carried out the initial attack on a suspected Al Qaeda hideout earlier this week.
On Tuesday, its spokesman said army helicopter gunships struck a cluster of compounds where up to 30 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were based in South Waziristan, a rugged tribal area where support for the Afghan insurgency runs deep.
Not true, according to villagers at Salamat Ghundi.
They said a U.S. drone's missiles destroyed the compounds, and Pakistan helicopter gunships mopped up by firing rockets.
"This is wrong. We have already denied it. This is usual that such things are said on such occasions but these are wrong," Pakistan's military spokesman Shaukat Sultan said in response.
Though Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking anonymously, reckon that up to 20 militants were eliminated, there were no troops on the ground to see who had been killed.
Villagers said they found just eight bodies -- all belonging to men from a team of wood-cutters, who made a living selling charcoal to surrounding towns.
"No foreigner or Afghan was killed in this attack. Only labourers from Mehsud and Salmanzai tribes were killed," said Awaz Khan, whose son and nephew were among the dead.
To back their story, the villagers dragged an unexploded missile in front of the journalists, who reached the village in the Zamzola area of the Shak Toi mountains on Thursday.
Getting watertight independent corroboration of anything that happens in Pakistan's tribal badlands is, however, a tall order.
The journalists had only reached the spot with an escort from armed militants, and there was no way of knowing whether the militants had told people what to say.
"This attack was basically carried out with five missiles fired by a Predator. The helicopters came in later and attacked," Jalindar Khan Kikari, a villager, told the visiting journalists.
"The missiles were fired from a distant place, maybe from a spy plane, but I did not see that," said another called Bashir, who went on to describe how the Pakistani helicopters arrived minutes later and blasted the place with rockets.
Another villager, Mohammad Ali, told Reuters on the day of the attack that he had seen a drone circling overhead, while a Reuters journalist saw helicopter gunships take off from the army base at Miranshah before the attack and return soon after.
That villagers should know a Predator when they see one is hardly surprising. The spy planes have become a common sight in recent years as U.S. forces kept up aerial surveillance of a border area Osama bin Laden was believed to have passed through.
The missile proudly displayed, however, appeared rather old.
Just under two meters (about five feet) long, and marked MFP AMF YORK 0873, its casing looked far more weathered than the U.S. missile fragments found after past attacks in Waziristan.
Under mounting pressure to confront Taliban in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf constantly risks a backlash over his alliance with the United States.
He has said no violation of territorial sovereignty by forces operating in Afghanistan will be permitted.
But over the past year, people in the tribal areas have challenged the official version of similar attacks in their lands, saying the United States was involved. Verifying the circumstances of such incidents is extremely difficult.
Militants have chased almost all journalists out of South Waziristan, along with anyone they think is pro-government.
Journalists also fear Pakistan's security agencies, particularly after the execution-style killing of a colleague, Hayatullah Khan, whose body was found last year.
Khan had disappeared after he reported the death of a al Qaeda member, Abu Hamza Rabia, in Waziristan in December, 2005.
Pakistan's military said Rabia died when explosives housed in the building he was staying in blew up. The dead journalist, Hayatullah Khan, however, had shown U.S. missile fragments to photographers at the attack site.