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Al Qaeda No. 2 Said to Be Saved by Chance

January 16, 2006|From Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A missed dinner appointment may have spared Al Qaeda's second in command from a U.S. airstrike on a Pakistani border village, Pakistani intelligence officials said Sunday.

The two officials said this could explain why Friday's predawn attack missed its apparent target, Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant.

Zawahiri instead sent some aides to the dinner, which marked an Islamic holiday; investigators were trying to determine whether they were among the 17 killed in three houses that were destroyed in the missile strike, one of the officials said.

The details emerged as Islamic groups held protests nationwide and anger mounted over the attack, which Pakistan says killed civilians when Zawahiri was not even there.

The White House declined to comment Sunday, and officials at several U.S. agencies have not provided details about the attack. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other U.S. lawmakers defended it Sunday.

"We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again" in going after Zawahiri, said McCain, who sought the GOP nomination for president in 2000 and may do so again in two years.

"We have to do what we think is necessary to take out Al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately," McCain said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Pakistani officials have strongly condemned the strike on the ethnic Pushtun hamlet of Damadola, about 4 miles from the border with Afghanistan.

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