PROTESTORS
Shakil Adil  /  AP
Pakistani protesters shout anti-U.S. slogans during a rally in Karachi Monday to condemn the purported CIA airstrike that killed 17 people.
updated 1/18/2006 1:24:12 AM ET 2006-01-18T06:24:12

Four or five foreign terrorists died in the purported U.S. airstrike aimed at al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader in a Pakistani border village, the provincial government said Tuesday.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, called Pakistan a valued ally in the war on terror Tuesday and pledged to continue pursuing al-Qaida leaders amid concerns the airstrike has strained ties between the two countries and could provoke more anti-American sentiment.

The statement issued by the administration of Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan also said that between 10 and 12 foreign extremists had been invited to the dinner at the village hit in Friday’s attack.

It was the first official confirmation by Pakistani authorities that foreign militants were killed in the attack on the village of Damadola. Women and children also died, triggering outrage in this Islamic nation.

The statement did not identify who the foreigners may have been or who was the target of the missile strike.

Pakistani intelligence officials have said Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant, had been invited to a dinner in the targeted village of Damadola to mark an Islamic holiday but did not show up and sent some aides instead.

Fate of bodies unclear
There have been conflicting accounts from Pakistani officials and witnesses over who, if anyone, reclaimed bodies from the scene of the missile strike.

Damadola residents claim all the victims were locals and they buried them all. One Pakistani official told The Associated Press Saturday that the bodies had been taken away for DNA tests, although it wasn’t clear by whom.

The statement, citing the chief official in the Bajur region where the Damadola is located, said its findings were from a report compiled by a “joint investigation team” but gave no specifics on who was included in the team.

“Four or five foreign terrorists have been killed in this missile attack whose dead bodies have been taken away by their companions to hide the real reason of the attack,” the statement said.

“It is regrettable that 18 local people lost their lives in the attack, but this fact also cannot be denied, that 10-12 foreign extremists had been invited on a dinner,” it said.

Al-Zawahri fate unknown
In Washington, a U.S. counterterrorism official said Monday it was not yet known if al-Zawahri was killed.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said a compound that was hit has been visited in the past by significant terrorist figures. “There were strong indications that was happening again,” the official said, adding that it appeared that some damage was done, even if al-Zawahri was not there.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao would only say Tuesday there was a “possibility” that foreigners were killed in the strike, which destroyed three houses and killed 18 people.

He told AP the government had “no information” about the presence of al-Zawahri.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to discuss the attack on Tuesday but said “al-Qaida continues to seek to do harm to the American people.”

“There are leaders that we continue to pursue and we will bring them to justice. The American people expect us to do so and that’s what this president is committed to doing,” he told reporters in Washington.

Protests in Pakistan
The attack has become an embarrassment for Islamabad, a staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Many in this nation of 150 million people oppose the government’s backing of the United States in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Frustration has been growing over a recent series of suspected U.S. attacks along the porous and ill-defined frontier aimed at militants. Washington has 20,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, but Pakistan says it does not allow them to hunt down or attack militants across the border.

Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets over the weekend, chanting “Death to America” and calling for the resignation of military leader President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The attack also has undermined the fragile goodwill cultivated in Pakistan by generous U.S. relief in the wake of October’s earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people.

Bush Sr. in Pakistan
Former President George H.W. Bush — who is touring Pakistan as a U.N. envoy for the relief effort in areas affected by the quake — declined to comment about the strike.

“I’m here as a representative of (Secretary-General Kofi Annan), so I leave that to someone else to comment. The feeling is that the U.S. is trying to help the people of Pakistan, and I hope that is what prevails,” Bush said during a joint press conference with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

Aziz, who planned to leave for an official visit to Washington later Tuesday, said Islamabad “cannot accept any action within our country” like the missile attack but stressed the bilateral relationship with Washington remained important.

“The relationship with the U.S. is important, it is growing,” Aziz said. “But at the same time such actions cannot be condoned.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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