Chanting "Death to America," angry anti-US Islamic groups staged nationwide protests yesterday against a purported CIA airstrike that Pakistan says killed innocent civilians instead of the apparent target -- top al-Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf meanwhile, warned his countrymen not to harbor militants, saying it would only increase violence within Pakistan's borders.
"If we kept sheltering foreign terrorists here ... our future will not be good," Musharraf said in speech broadcast yesterday by state-run Pakistan Television. "Remember what I say."
Musharraf, who spoke on Saturday to a gathering in the northwestern town of Sawabi, did not directly mention Friday's attack that killed at least 17 people, including women and children, in a village of Damadola, just a few kilometers from the Afghanistan border.
But his government has protested to the US Embassy in Pakistan amid growing frustration over a recent series of suspected US attacks along the frontier, apparently aimed at Islamic militants.
Yesterday, about 10,000 people rallied in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, many chanting "Death to American Aggression" and "Stop bombing innocent people."
Hundreds of riot police, wielding batons and shields, were deployed in the streets, but the rally ended after an hour with no reports of clashes or violence.
Ghafoor Ahmed, a leader in the coalition of anti-US Islamic groups that organized yesterday's nationwide rallies, told demonstrators in Karachi that Musharraf must step down.
"The army cannot defend the country under in his leadership," he said.
Hundreds more rallied in the capital, Islamabad, and in Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and elsewhere, burning US flags and demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
On Saturday, about 8,000 tribesmen staged a rally in the town of Inayat Qala, and a mob set fire to the office of a US-backed aid agency in a nearby village.
Survivors in Damadola denied militants were in their hamlet, but some news reports quoted unidentified Pakistani officials as saying up to 11 extremists were believed among the dead.
A senior intelligence official said yesterday that 12 bodies had been taken away, seven of them foreigners, five of them Pakistani militants from eastern Punjab Province.
He said the bodies were reclaimed by other militants, but another Pakistani official said on Saturday some were taken away for DNA tests to determine their identity.
Their claims could not be independently verified.
In Washington, counterterrorism officials declined to comment on US media reports that CIA-operated drone aircraft fired missiles Friday at a residential compound in Damadola trying to hit al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant.
A large number of al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants, including al-Zawahri and bin Laden are believed to have sought refuge along the rugged, porous and ill-defined border.
Two senior Pakistani security officials confirmed that al-Zawahri was the intended victim and said Pakistan's assessment was that the CIA acted on incorrect information.
A news report yesterday said the mission was launched on intelligence that al-Zawahri had been invited to dinner that night in one of three houses leveled by the attack. Also invited were two clerics, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Maulvi Liaqat, both wanted for harboring militants, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported, citing unidentified senior officials.