Pakistani president tells senior U.S. official airstrike cannot be repeated
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s president told a senior American official Saturday the United States must not repeat airstrikes like the one that apparently was aimed at al-Qaida but killed civilians in a remote village, as officials sought to soothe public outrage over the attack.Also Saturday, two Pakistani intelligence officials told The Associated Press a captured al-Qaida leader had informed interrogators that he had met Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, last year at one of the homes that was hit.President Gen. Pervez Musharraf assured visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns that Pakistan would not waver in its support for Washington’s war on terrorism but said such airstrikes must not be repeated, a Foreign Ministry official said. The attack prompted nationwide protests calling for Musharraf’s ouster.The comments were Musharraf’s first publicized reaction to the Jan. 13 attack on the village of Damadola, near the border with Afghanistan.The strike, which hit three homes in the mountainous Bajur tribal region, is believed to have killed at least four of al-Zawahri’s close associates and at least 13 civilians, including women and children.The Foreign Ministry official said Musharraf told Burns: “What happened in Bajur must not be repeated.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the record.Musharraf apparently was referring to his country’s long-standing policy of prohibiting the 20,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan from pursuing militants across the border into Pakistan or attacking them in the country without permission. Government officials have said they were not informed of last week’s attack ahead of time.Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri delivered a similar message to Burns when they met later on Saturday in the capital, Islamabad.”While reaffirming Pakistan’s commitment to counterterrorism, the foreign minister underlined the need for the two countries to work in a manner that precludes recent incidents like Bajur,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.A separate ministry statement issued earlier after Musharraf’s meeting did not mention the president’s comments on the airstrike. Instead it said Musharraf expressed gratitude for Washington’s assistance in relief efforts for an Oct. 8 earthquake that devastated the country’s north. Burns met Musharraf at his office in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near Islamabad.Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terrorism. But it has lodged a protest with the United States over the airstrike that angered many in this Islamic nation of 150 million.Pakistan’s independent GEO television reported that Musharraf warned Burns that repeated attacks could affect cooperation in the war on terrorism.U.S. Embassy spokesman Rakesh Surampudi said he was unable to comment on whether Burns had discussed the attack with Musharraf. Burns, whose visit was scheduled before the Damadola attack, was in Pakistan to talk about security and earthquake relief aid.Pakistani officials suspect at least four foreign militants may have died in last week’s attack, including Egyptian Midhat Mursi, an al-Qaida explosives and chemical weapons expert, and a son-in-law of al-Zawahri. Mursi has a $5 million bounty on his head and is on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.The Pakistan and U.S. governments, however, have not confirmed the identity or nationality of any dead al-Qaida suspects.Pakistani authorities said they were looking for the graves of the dead militants.One official said the four bodies were removed by a local pro-Taliban cleric who was at a dinner with them “and then were shifted to an undisclosed location.”Pakistani and U.S. officials reportedly have said that the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri skipped the meeting and was not killed in the attack.The Pakistanis have made conflicting statements about the airstrike in recent days.Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters in New York on Friday that there was no “tangible evidence” that any extremists had gathered in Damadola. But Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and provincial authorities had earlier confirmed the presence of “foreign terrorists” the night of the attack.Two Pakistani intelligence officials said Libyan-born Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who was captured in Pakistan in May 2005, told interrogators that had met al-Zawahri last year at one of the homes that was hit.The two are believed to have met at the house of Bakhtpur Khan, who is listed among the 13 civilians believed to have died in the airstrike.One of the intelligence officials said al-Libbi’s statement was later verified and it was confirmed that he met al-Zawahri in Damadola. The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.Al-Libbi is accused of masterminding two attempts to assassinate Musharraf over Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. After his arrest, he was turned over to Washington for further investigation.U.S. and Pakistani intelligence – helped by tribesmen and Afghans – began monitoring Khan’s home after al-Libbi’s confession, the intelligence officials said.—Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks at the United Nations contributed to this report.