Wed, Nov 01, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Thousands protest deadly Pakistani air raid

AFP , KHAR, PAKISTAN

Thousands of gun-wielding Pakistani tribesmen chanting "Death to Bush" protested yesterday against a deadly air raid on an al-Qaeda-linked religious school in which 80 people were killed.

The show of anger came ahead of rallies called by radical Islamic leaders, triggering security fears that forced Britain's Prince Charles to cancel a key part of his visit to Pakistan.

Around 15,000 bearded men wearing turbans burned effigies of US President George W. Bush and shouted "Death to Musharraf" in the troubled Bajaur tribal region, which borders Afghanistan, a correspondent said.

The military said Monday's pre-dawn helicopter attack, the deadliest in Pakistan's history, targeted a hardline Islamic school or madrassa that doubled as an al-Qaeda-linked camp.

President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in Bush's "war on terror," told a seminar in Islamabad that the dead were all insurgents.

"They were all militants using weapons, doing military training within the compound. We were watching them for the last six or seven days -- we knew exactly who they are, what they are doing," he said.

But radical Islamic clerics told the mass rally at Khar, the main town in rugged Bajaur, that all those who died were young students, and vowed revenge.

"We are ready for suicide attacks against the enemy," said one of the clerics, Inayatul Rehman.

The meeting place was ringed by masked men wielding Kalashnikovs and ammunition belts. No government security forces could be seen in the area, and most of the protesters wore black armbands.

Leaders in this pocket of support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban accused US forces of either ordering the strike on the madrasah or of actually carrying out the raid using Predator drones.

Officials say Bajaur is a hotspot for militants fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan's Kunar Province. Al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was targeted in a failed CIA missile strike here in January.

Among those killed in Monday's raid was Maulvi Liaqat, a local Taliban commander who ran the madrasah and who is known to be a close associate of Zawahiri, security officials said.

Locals were still digging through the rubble of the concrete-walled compound yesterday to check for any more human remains. The rest of the victims were buried at a mass funeral on Monday.

Authorities closed all routes to the mountain-fringed town and barred entry to Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the chief of Pakistan's biggest coalition of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA -- United Action Front).

Another 5,000 tribesmen rallied in Landi Kotal, the main town of the nearby Khyber tribal area, blaming Musharraf for the "bloodshed of innocent tribesmen," witnesses said.

Smaller protests took place in several cities including nearby Peshawar, obliging Charles and his wife, Camilla, to scrap a planned visit there.

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