Islamic groups yesterday vowed to step up anti-US protests in Pakistan over an alleged CIA airstrike on a border village, as intelligence officials said al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader was supposed to be in the village for an Islamic holiday when it was struck.
Ayman al-Zawahri, Osamba bin Laden's top lieutenant, was invited to an Islamic dinner in the village near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan but did not show up -- which could explain why Friday's pre-dawn attack missed its apparent target, two Pakistani officials said.
Al-Zawahri sent some aides to the dinner instead, and investigators were trying to determine whether they had been in any of the three houses that were destroyed in the missile strike that killed at least 17 people, one of the officials said on Sunday.
The Islamic groups held nationwide protests on Sunday, as anger mounted over the attack that Pakistan said killed innocent civilians while al-Zawahri was not even there. The anti-US religious coalition that organized the rallies promised more of them.
"There will be more ... bigger protests," alliance spokesman Shahid Shamsi said yesterday.
across the coutnry
Some 10,000 people rallied on Sunday in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, chanting "Death to America" and "Stop bombing against innocent people."
Hundreds massed in the capital, Islamabad, and in Lahore, Multan and Peshawar burning US flags and demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Protesters believe the airstrike was ordered by the CIA and launched by US forces who are pursuing Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in neighboring Afghanistan, and Shamsi said the war on terror should not extend across borders without permission.
"Pakistani civilians, including children, were killed," Shamsi said.
"Principles cannot be broken in the name of [fighting] terrorism," he added.
The White House declined to comment on Sunday, and officials at several US agencies have not provided details about the attack. But Republican Senator John McCain and other US lawmakers defended it on Sunday.
"We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again" in going after Ayman al-Zawahri, McCain said.
"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 told CBS.
Pakistani officials have strongly condemned the strike on the ethnic Pashtun hamlet of Damadola, about 7km from the border with Afghanistan.
A senior army official said on Sunday that "foreigners" were reported in the area around Damadola, which is 6km from the Afghanistan border, but he said there was no information al-Zawahri was among them.
Many in this nation of 150 million people oppose the government's participation in the US-led war against international terrorist groups, and there is increasing frustration over a recent series of suspected US attacks along the frontier aimed at militants.
A large number of al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants, including al-Zawahri and bin Laden, are believed to have taken refuge in the rugged mountains along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Pakistani officials insist they do not allow the 20,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan to cross the border in the hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.