Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Pakistan officials say militants also killed in US strike


The provincial government said on Tuesday that, in addition to 18 civilians, four or five foreign militants were killed by the US airstrikes on the village of Damadola on Friday, but that their bodies were removed from the scene by companions. In all, 10 to 12 militants had been invited to a dinner in the village that night, it said.

The findings, in the first official statement that militants had been among those killed, were from a preliminary investigation at the scene by government agencies.

The initial investigation found the attack was "directed against some foreign terrorists who were present in the area at the time of occurrence," the statement said, quoting Fahim Wazir, the political administrator of the Bajaur region, where the attacks took place.

The deaths of 18 civilians, including six children, have angered Pakistanis and put pressure on the government to explain what happened in Bajaur.

Villagers from Damadola insisted to local journalists that there had been no militants in the area that night. Yet President Pervez Musharraf said the day after the strikes that there had been a foreign presence in the village, and he urged the population not to harbor foreign militants.

The government has since come under a flurry of accusations from opponents that Pakistani and US government officials have leaked false information that al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other militants were in the village, in order to make excuses for the attack.

The government statement goes partway to countering those accusations, since the bodies of the militants, it said, were taken away from the scene.

"At least four to five foreign elements had also been killed in the incident, but their bodies were removed from the scene within no time by their companions, so as to suppress the actual reason of the attack," Wazir said, according to the statement.

"It is highly regrettable that this attack led to the killing of 18 innocent local people," he said, "but this is also an undeniable fact, that at least 10 to 12 foreign miscreants were invited to a dinner in this village on that night." Investigations were continuing, the statement said.

US officials have said that the airstrike was aimed at Zawahiri. Pakistani officials said Zawahiri was not at the site of the attack, having failed to show up for the dinner.

A US counter-terrorism official said on Tuesday that the attack had been based on good intelligence about Zawahiri's location,

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