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Pakistan Attack Killed at Least 4 Terrorism Suspects, U.S. Says

Intelligence officials believe they were close associates of Al Qaeda's second in command.

January 18, 2006|Mubashir Zaidi and Paul Watson | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Last week's airstrike targeting Al Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman Zawahiri, killed at least four foreign militants believed by U.S. intelligence officials to be among the Egyptian doctor's top aides, Pakistani officials and U.S. sources said Tuesday.

The attack Friday by CIA drone aircraft armed with missiles sparked angry protests nationwide after it killed several women and children.

The announcement by Pakistani officials that the strike apparently killed foreign terrorism suspects appeared aimed at opposition factions that have accused President Pervez Musharraf of giving the United States too much latitude in its pursuit of such suspects in the tribal regions near the Afghanistan border.

"It is regrettable that 18 local people lost their lives in the attack, but this fact also cannot be denied, that 10 to 12 foreign extremists had been invited [to] a dinner," a statement from Pakistan's federal administrator for the border region said Tuesday.

The statement said two fugitives described as Al Qaeda facilitators, Faqir Mohammed and Maulana Liaquat, also were present when the compound was attacked.

Pakistan's government has said it does not believe that Zawahiri, who reportedly had been invited to a dinner at the compound, died in the airstrike.

U.S. authorities have made no such conclusion.

Intelligence sources in Washington confirmed Tuesday that the attack's victims included foreign fighters, and characterized them as Zawahiri associates.

"There is reason to believe that some of Zawahiri's associates may have been killed in the attack," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He declined to elaborate or provide names, but said several Egyptians were among the four or five foreign fighters believed killed, and that they held senior positions in Al Qaeda. "We're not talking about foot soldiers," the counter-terrorism official said.

Witnesses and local officials say four piloted jets, in addition to the automated drones, bombed the mud-brick compound from Pakistani airspace shortly after 3 a.m. Friday.

Villagers took the bodies of the militants away after the attack, said a statement issued by authorities in Bajaur, one of seven semiautonomous tribal areas where support for Muslim militants is strong among the mainly Pushtun population.

The Pakistan government said it had lodged a formal complaint about the cross-border attack with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive and pro-Western reformer, was guarded in his criticism of the airstrike Tuesday during an Islamabad news conference with former President George H.W. Bush, who is assessing Pakistan's earthquake recovery efforts on behalf of the United Nations.

"Pakistan is committed to fighting terrorism, but naturally we cannot accept any action within our country which results in what happened over the weekend," Aziz said. "So the relationship with the U.S. is important, it is growing, but at the same time such actions cannot be condoned."

Aziz said he intended to go ahead with a previously planned visit to Washington next week for talks on a range of issues with President Bush, a signal that any high-level fallout from the missile attack is likely to be short-lived.

Opposition leaders had called on Aziz to cancel his U.S. trip unless the U.S. apologized.

Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood said the Bajaur incident damaged Musharraf's credibility because it created the impression that he was out of the loop in critical moments before the attack.

"The policy of the U.S. is very clear: They can't wait if they think there is a 'high-value target,' " said Masood, a security analyst. "Here Musharraf is caught in a dilemma, as Pakistan is fully dependent on the U.S. economically and for its defense needs."

The missile strike was the third attack inside Pakistan by U.S. forces based in neighboring Afghanistan since November.

Pakistan's government says it does not believe Zawahiri was killed in the airstrike. U.S. authorities say they are still examining evidence.

Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup, is constantly engaged in a battle for public support because he has never won a mandate to govern by running in an election.

He has deftly divided the opposition by banning mainstream political parties and using his military intelligence agency to build up rival parties that now form the government.

An alliance of six Islamic parties that form the official opposition in the federal parliament, and control two provinces bordering Afghanistan, has led protests against last week's airstrike and Musharraf's alliance with the West.

But the Islamic parties have failed repeatedly to put pressure on Musharraf in the streets, in part because they have not joined with secular political parties to form a more broad-based opposition.

*

Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Watson from New Delhi. Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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