ISLAMABAD (AP) â€” Pakistani helicopter gunships destroyed a religious school allegedly fronting as an Al Qaeda training camp on Monday, killing up to 80 people in the country’s deadliest-ever military operation targeting suspected â€œterroristsâ€.
Furious villagers and religious leaders said the pre-dawn missile barrage, however, killed innocent students and teachers, forcing thousands to protest against Pakistan’s counterterror alliance with the United States, chanting “Death to Bush!” and burning American flags.
Islamic leaders and wanted men called for massive nationwide protests Tuesday to condemn the attack that flattened a school â€” known as a madrassa â€” and ripped apart scores of people inside the building, located in remote northwestern Pakistan on the Afghan border.
The bloody raid threatens efforts by PresidentÂ Pervez Musharraf to convince deeply conservative tribespeople to back his government over pro-Taleban and Al Qaeda fighters, who enjoy strong support in many semiautonomous regions in northern Pakistan.
Musharraf has been under intense pressure, particularly from the United States and neighbouring Afghanistan, to rein in groups operating in the region, particularly along the porous Pakistan-Afghan frontier, where Al Qaeda leaders Osama Ben Laden and Ayman Zawahri are believed to be hiding.
Monday’s attack â€” the deadliest single military operation staged by Pakistan forces on suspected â€œterroristsâ€ â€” took place in Chingai village in volatile Bajur district, some 200 kilometres northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
Chingai is also three kilometres from the Afghan border opposite Kunar province and groups are believed to routinely cross between the two, ferrying fighters, weapons and supplies to target US forces in Afghanistan and Pakistani soldiers on this side of the ethnic-Pashtun majority tribal belt.
At least four helicopter gunships hovered over the Chingai madrassa at about 5:00am firing four to five missiles into the building where up to 80 suspects were believed to have been, Pakistan’s army said.
The raid was launched after the madrassa’s leaders, headed by Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani cleric Liaquat Hussain, rejected government warnings in recent weeks to stop using the madrassa as a training camp, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
“These militants were involved in actions inside Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan,” Sultan told the Associated Press.
Sultan said intelligence gathered from the scene indicated that about 80 people were killed inside the isolated building, which was 100 metres away from the nearest house. Local political officials and Islamic leaders corroborated the death toll, but there was no way to immediately verify the number.
Hussain, believed to have been a deputy of Zawahri and provided shelter for other Al Qaeda members, was among those killed, a Bajur-area intelligence official and locals said.
Another Zawahri lieutenant, local Al Qaeda-linked leader Faqir Mohammad, apparently left the madrassa 30 minutes before the strike, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was unauthorised to speak to the media.
Hours later, Mohammed addressed a crowd of 10,000 mourners at a mass funeral held for some of the victims, during which he denounced Musharraf and vowed widescale protests.
“We were peaceful, but the government attacked and killed our innocent people on orders from America,” said Mohammed, who was surrounded by several dozen men 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 traditional wooden beds placed side by side in rows and covered with coloured blankets.
Locals walked among the beds and offered prayers. One man was seen striding through the crowd holding aloft â€” trophy-style â€” a severed, blackened hand. Armed factions with faces covered with brown and red scarves patrolled the crowd.
On Saturday, Mohammed led a nearby rally of 5,000 pro-Taleban and Al Qaeda men where he denounced the Pakistan and US governments and praised Ben Laden.
Protests were held from Peshawar to Karachi following the attacks, the largest taking place in Chingai and Bajur’s main town of Khar, where 2,000 tribesmen and shopkeepers marched through the main street chanting “Death to Musharraf! Death to Bush!” Local lawmakers resigned from their posts in protest.
Supporters of Pakistan’s biggest Islamic political group, Jamaat-e-Islami, condemned US President George W. Bush and burned American flags in the southern cities of Karachi and Multan.
Ali Dayan Hasan, a South Asia representative for rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, accused Pakistani authorities of “persistent use of excessive and disproportionate force… in pursuing counterterror operations.” Fears are high that the attack will fan widespread unrest across Pakistan, which witnessed violent protests this year after the publication in European newspapers of caricatures lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, as well as the August killing of prominent tribal ethnic-Baluch tribal chief, Nawab Akbar Bugti, 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 nationwide protests Tuesday to denounce the US and Pakistan’s support for Washington.
“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,” Ahmed, leader of a six-party religious alliance opposed to Musharraf, told reporters.
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 US or NATO involvement. The severity of the fatal wounds to most of the victims prevented positive identifications of most.
In Afghanistan, US military spokesman Maj. Matt Hackathorn said he had no knowledge of any American role in the attack. The US Central Command in Qatar also said it had no information.
“It was completely done by the Pakistani military,” Hackathorn told the AP.
The attack happened about three kilometres from Damadola, where in January a US Predator drone aircraft fired a missile that purportedly targeted â€” and missed â€” Zawahri, but killed several Al Qaeda members and civilians instead.
Thousands of tribespeople travelled from nearby villages to inspect Chingai’s destroyed madrassa, many wailing and others chanting “Long live Islam.” The blast levelled the building, tearing mattresses and scattering Islamic books, including copies of the Holy Koran.
Dozens of villagers collected the remains of at least 30 bodies from the building’s rubble, placing the parts of each body into separate large plastic bags normally used to hold fertilizer before taking them away for burial.
“We heard helicopters flying in and then heard bombs,” said one of the villagers, Haji Youssef. “We were all saddened by what we have seen.” The sole survivors were believed three males aged 22-25 years, who were in critical conditions, hospital officials said.