DAMADOLA, Pakistan – Pakistani officials on Saturday angrily condemned a purported CIA airstrike meant to target Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, saying he wasn't there and "innocent civilians" were among at least 17 men, women and children killed in a village near the Afghan border.
Thousands of tribesmen staged protests and a mob set fire to the office of a U.S.-backed aid agency as Pakistan's people and government showed increasing frustration over a recent series of suspected U.S. attacks along the frontier that appear aimed at Islamic militants.
Survivors in Damadola denied militants were in their hamlet, but there were news reports quoting unidentified Pakistani officials as saying up to 11 extremists were believed among the dead.
A Pakistani intelligence officer told The Associated Press some bodies were taken away for DNA tests. He did not say who would do the tests, but a law enforcement official in Washington said the FBI expected to conduct DNA tests to determine victims' identities, although Pakistan had not yet formally requested them.
Counterterrorism officials in Washington declined to comment on U.S. media reports that CIA-operated drone aircraft fired missiles Friday at a residential compound in Damadola trying to hit Ayman Al Zawahiri, Usama bin Laden's top lieutenant whose videos have made him the face and voice of Al Qaeda.
In Pakistan's strongest reaction, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed called the attack "highly condemnable" and said the government wanted "to assure the people we will not allow such incidents to reoccur."
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it protested to U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker over the "loss of innocent civilian lives."
Neither addressed the target of the airstrike. But two senior Pakistani security officials confirmed to AP that Al-Zawahiri was the intended victim and said Pakistan's assessment was that the CIA acted on incorrect information.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn't want to publicly comment about such a sensitive matter.
Many in this nation of 150 million people object to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's alliance with Washington in the war on international terror groups, seeing it as a veiled campaign against Muslims.
More than 8,000 tribesmen chanting "God is great!" took to the streets of a town near Damadola to castigate the attack. Sahibzada Haroon ur Rashid, a local lawmaker from a hardline Islamic party, called it "open terrorism."
Elsewhere in the area, a mob burned the office of a U.S.-supported aid group near Damadola and police used tear gas to disperse a small demonstration in another town, residents said.
In Damadola, villagers said all the dead were local people and denied harboring Al-Zawahiri or any other Islamic extremists in the ethnic Pashtun hamlet about four miles from the border with Afghanistan.
"I don't know him. He was not at my home. No foreigner was at my home when the planes came and dropped bombs," said Shah Zaman, whose house was one of those destroyed in the attack.
The strike left three homes hundreds of yards apart in ruins. People in the area said the blasts could be felt miles away.
Doctors told AP at least 17 people died, including women and children, but residents put the death toll at more than 30.
While villagers denied outsiders were present, the Foreign Ministry's statement said a preliminary investigation indicated there was a "foreign presence" in the area — which it said had most likely been targeted from across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's government insists it does not allow the 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to cross the border in the hunt for Taliban fighters or Al Qaeda members believed to be hiding in the remote mountains of the frontier region.
But the attack in Damadola was the latest in a string of incidents on Pakistan's side of the border in recent weeks that many people suspect were U.S. assaults that violated this Islamic country's sovereignty.
Last Saturday, U.S. helicopters reportedly attacked a house in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing eight people. Two days later, Pakistan lodged a protest with the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
In December, a senior Egyptian Al Qaeda suspect, Hamza Rabia, was killed in what appeared to be a missile strike, also in North Waziristan — although Pakistan's government maintained that Rabia died in a bomb-making accident.
Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, both of whom have $25 million U.S. bounties on their heads, are believed to have been hiding along the rugged Pakistan-Afghan frontier since the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Reports that Al-Zawahiri could be close to capture have surfaced before.
In early 2004 during a major Pakistani counterterrorism operation in South Waziristan, Pakistani officials said he was believed to be hiding in the area. The reports were never substantiated.