osama and friend 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
At least 17 people were killed in a US airstrike on a suspected al-Qaida hideout in Pakistan near the Afghan border on Saturday. Pakistani officials said that the strike targeted the terrorist network's number 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. It was unclear if al-Zawahri or any other terror suspects were among the dead.
Citing unnamed American intelligence officials, US networks reported it was a CIA strike and that al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, could have been at a compound targeted in the attack early Friday or about to arrive.
An The Associated Press reporter who visited the scene in Damadola village about 12 hours later saw three destroyed houses, hundreds of yards apart. Villagers had buried at least 15 people, including women and children, and were digging for more bodies in the rubble.
There was no confirmation from either Islamabad or Washington on the reports, but a senior Pakistani official told The Associated Press that "there is 50-50 chance that some al-Qaida personality" was at one of the homes that was hit and that he had heard it could be al-Zawahri. He expected more information later Saturday.
Villagers in Damadola denied hosting al-Zawahri or any other al-Qaida or Taliban figure, saying all the dead were local people. On Saturday, more than 8,000 tribesmen staged a peaceful protest in a nearby town to condemn the airstrike, which one speaker described as "open terrorism."
US and Pakistani officials told NBC news that US predator drones fired as many as 10 missiles at the village in the Bajur tribal region of northwestern Pakistan. ABC quoted anonymous Pakistani military sources as saying al-Zawahri could have been among five top al-Qaida officials believed killed.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official told AP the remains of some bodies had "quickly been removed" from Damadola after the strike and DNA tests were being conducted, but would not say by whom. Like the senior government official, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
The intelligence official said that the CIA had told Pakistani agents that they had targeted al-Zawahri in the attack but it remained to be seen if he'd been in the village at the time. The official added that hours before the strike some unidentified guests had arrived at the home of one tribesman named Shah Zaman.
Zaman, whose home was destroyed but survived the attack, denied hosting any terrorists and said no officials had taken bodies away.
"I don't know him (al-Zawahri). He was not at my home. No foreigner was at my home when the planes came and dropped bombs," he said.
Local lawmaker Sahibzada Haroon ur Rashid, who visited Damadola soon after the attack, said the dead had already been buried, and claimed no foreigners were among them. They came from a local family of jewelers, he said, adding that none of the bodies had been burnt or charred beyond recognition that would make identification difficult.
Maj.-Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the spokesman for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led war on terrorism, only said the explosions in the village, which lies about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad, were under investigation. He gave no details.
In Washington, Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and intelligence officials all said they had no information on the reports concerning al-Zawahri.
In Afghanistan, US military spokesman Lt. Mike Cody referred questions on the matter to the Pentagon. The US Embassy in Pakistan referred questions to the Pakistan government.
Doctors told AP that at least 17 people died in the attack, but residents of Damadola, a Pashtun tribal hamlet on a hillside about seven kilometers (four miles) from the Afghan border, said more than 30 had died.
They recounted hearing aircraft flying overhead before bombs or missiles crashed through the village - blasts that were felt miles away.
Speaking as he dug through the cement rubble of his home, Zaman, said he heard planes at around 2:40 a.m. and then eight explosions. He said planes had been flying over the village for the last three or four days.
At another destroyed house, Sami Ullah, a 17-year-old student, said 24 of his family members were killed and vowed he would "seek justice from God."
The attack was the latest in a series of strikes on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan, unexplained by authorities but widely suspected to have targeted terror suspects.
Pakistan lodged a protest Monday with the US military in Afghanistan after a reported US air strike killed eight people in the North Waziristan tribal region last Saturday. Pakistan says it does not allow US forces to cross the border in pursuit of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
In Afghanistan, Mohammed Hasan, deputy police chief of Kunar province, which is opposite Bajur, said US forces had for weeks been patrolling in airplanes along the rugged border, which he described as a hide-out for Arab terrorists.
Al-Zawahri, who has a US$25 million dollar US bounty on his head, has appeared regularly over the Internet and in Arab media, encouraging Muslims to attack Americans and US interests worldwide.
Like bin Laden, his whereabouts had been unknown since the US military campaign in Afghanistan began following the terror attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people.