Missiles fired by Pakistani helicopters destroyed a religious school on the Afghan border Monday that the military said was a front for an al-Qaida training camp, killing 80 people and prompting strong protests against the country’s president and the United States.
About 10,000 tribesmen, including armed militants, rallied Tuesday in the northwestern town of Khar near the site, chanting: “God is Great,” “Death to Bush! Death to Musharraf!” and “Anyone who is a friend of America is traitor.”
Islamic leaders and al-Qaida-linked militants had called for nationwide demonstrations to condemn what they claimed was an American assault on Pakistani soil. The army said those who died were militants, but furious villagers and religious leaders said the pre-dawn missile barrage killed innocent students and teachers at the school, known as a madrassa.
U.S. and Pakistani military officials denied American involvement and rejected claims that children and women died in the strike that flattened the building in the remote northwestern village of Chingai, two miles from the Afghan border.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been under intense pressure, particularly from the United States and Afghanistan, to rein in militant groups, particularly along the porous Pakistan-Afghan frontier, where Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are believed to be hiding. The Pakistani leader, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, met with President Bush in Washington last month to address the issue.
Among those killed in Monday’s attack was Liaquat Hussain, a cleric who had sheltered militants in the past and was believed associated with al-Zawahri. The raid was launched after the madrassa’s leaders, headed by Hussain, rejected government warnings to stop using the school as a training camp for terrorists, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
“These militants were involved in actions inside Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan,” Sultan told The Associated Press.
Militant groups in Bajur are believed to ferry fighters, weapons and supplies to Afghanistan to target U.S. forces there and Pakistani soldiers on this side of the ethnic-Pashtun majority tribal belt.
The raid threatens efforts by Musharraf to persuade deeply conservative tribespeople to back his government over pro-Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, who enjoy strong support in many semiautonomous regions in northern Pakistan. The planned signing of a peace deal between tribal leaders and the military was canceled Monday in response to the airstrike.
At Tuesday’s protest in Khar, loudspeakers blared songs urging people to wage holy war, or jihad, as protesters gathered in a large field in the town, located about 6 miles from Chingai village.
“We will continue our jihad. We will take revenge for the blood of our martyrs,” local Islamic cleric, Maulana Roohul Amin, told the crowd. “The forces of infidelity are trying to erase us from existence.”
Protests were also held Monday from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the southern city of Karachi, the largest taking place in Chingai and the Bajur district’s main town of Khar, where 2,000 tribesmen and shopkeepers chanted “Death to Musharraf! Death to Bush!”
Amid fears of unrest, Britain’s Prince Charles, who arrived in Pakistan on Sunday for a five-day stay, canceled a visit planned for Tuesday to Peshawar.
The raid was the country’s deadliest military operation targeting suspected terrorists. Sultan said 80 people were killed in the building, which was 100 yards from the nearest house. Local political officials and Islamic leaders corroborated the death toll.
Sultan denied reports that al-Zawahri was in the area at the time of the attack. “It is all wrong, speculative and we launched this operation on our own to target a training facility,” he said. A Bajur-area intelligence official said word was spreading among residents that al-Zawahri may have been expected at the madrassa, but he said the reports were wrong.
Hussain, the cleric believed to have been a deputy of al-Zawahri, was among those killed, the intelligence official and residents said.
Another al-Zawahri lieutenant, Faqir Mohammed, apparently left the madrassa 30 minutes before the strike, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Hours later, Mohammed addressed 10,000 mourners at a funeral for some of the victims.
“We were peaceful, but the government attacked and killed our innocent people on orders from America,” said Mohammed, who was surrounded by dozens of militants brandishing semiautomatic weapons. “It is an open aggression.”
Three funerals were held one after the other in a field near the madrassa, where the remains of at least 50 people were laid on wooden beds placed side by side in rows and covered with colored blankets.
Villagers walked among the beds and offered prayers. One man strode through the crowd holding aloft — trophy-style — a severed, blackened hand. Militants, their faces covered with brown and red scarves, patrolled the crowd.
On Saturday, Mohammed led a nearby rally of 5,000 pro-Taliban and al-Qaida militants where he denounced the Pakistani and U.S. governments and praised bin Laden.
Will strike fan more unrest?
Fears are high that the attack will fan unrest across Pakistan, which witnessed violent protests this year after European newspapers published cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, as well as the August killing of a ethnic-Baluch tribal chief in another Pakistani military raid.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s most influential Islamist political leader blamed American forces for the attack, without providing evidence to support his claim, and called for protests Tuesday.
“It was an American plane behind the attack and Pakistan is taking responsibility because they know there would be a civil war if the American responsibility was known,” said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of a six-party religious alliance opposed to Musharraf.
Ahmed claimed that 30 children were among Monday’s dead. But Sultan, the army spokesman, said no children or women were killed and rejected suggestions of U.S. or NATO involvement. Most victims’ bodies were so mangled that positive identification was impossible.
The U.S. military also denied involvement.
“It was completely done by the Pakistani military,” U.S. military spokesman Maj. Matt Hackathorn said in Afghanistan.
The attack took place about two miles from Damadola, where in January a U.S. Predator drone aircraft fired a missile that purportedly targeted — and missed — al-Zawahri, but killed several al-Qaida members and civilians instead.
Thousands of tribespeople traveled from nearby villages to inspect Chingai’s destroyed madrassa, many wailing and others chanting “Long live Islam.” The blast leveled the building, tearing mattresses and scattering Islamic books, including copies of the Quran.
“We heard helicopters flying in and then heard bombs,” said one villager, Haji Youssef. “We were all saddened by what we have seen.”