KHAR, Pakistan – A top Taliban leader vowed Thursday to target the U.S. after an alleged missile strike killed several people in northwest Pakistan, a threat that could undermine the new government's efforts to negotiate peace deals with militants.
Blasts destroyed a compound Wednesday in Damadola village, a militant stronghold in the Bajur tribal region near the Afghanistan border. A similar attack in 2006 reportedly missed Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The governor of the turbulent North West Frontier Province condemned the incident as an "attack on the sovereignty of Pakistan" that would hamper the country's efforts against terrorism. He said the dead included an 8-year-old boy.
Residents said they saw a U.S. aircraft flying in the area before two explosions rocked the village. The U.S., which has not commented on the incident, is believed to operate unmanned drones out of Afghanistan.
Faqir Mohammed, a cleric and deputy leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement, vowed revenge after attending a funeral for seven men who were said to have been killed.
"America martyred our people, and the blood of our brothers will not go to waste," Mohammed said. "God willing, we will avenge it by targeting America."
Later Thursday, several thousand protesters attended rallies called by Islamist political parties in Damadola and Khar, Bajur's main town. Demonstrators chanted "Death to America" and slogans against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
The alleged missile strike could embarrass Pakistan's new government, which is trying to pursue peace deals with militants. The negotiations have stirred alarm in the U.S., which long backed Musharraf's more forceful tactics. Western officials worry that such deals may simply give militants time to regroup and plan attacks in Afghanistan and the West.
Maulvi Umar, a Taliban spokesman, has said the movement will continue fighting in Afghanistan despite any peace deal it might reach in Pakistan. Both countries have suffered from a series of militant attacks.
Responding to the latest incident, Umar said "we will avenge this but will continue talks with the government."
The explosions were thought to be the first such attack since the new government took power six weeks ago. A spate of strikes in March killed at least 25 people in the border region, fueling speculation that Musharraf, whose allies then led the government, gave tacit approval to U.S. forces targeting foreign militants inside Pakistan.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said Thursday he was "not aware" of any such approval. Pakistan insists it does not allow U.S. forces to operate on its territory.
Pakistan's military spokesman declined to comment Thursday. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad deferred comments to officials in Washington, who could not be immediately reached.
Sadiq declined to discuss the implications of Wednesday's blast because investigators were still trying to determine if it was caused by a missile, a rocket or an "internal explosion."
But Gov. Ovais Ahmed Ghani described the incident as a missile strike that would undermine public backing for counterterrorism efforts.
Pakistan has previously passed off several similar incidents as accidental detonations of explosives stashed in militant hideouts.
Who or exactly how many people were killed in the latest alleged strike remained unclear.
An Associated Press reporter visiting Thursday saw dusty shoes and clothes splattered with blood amid debris at the compound, which was guarded by armed militants. The roofs of three rooms had caved in.
On Wednesday, villager Ibrahim Khan said at least 15 people were killed while local Taliban leaders gathered for a feast at the targeted house. The Taliban's Umar said more than 10 died, including women and children.
In 2006, a missile strike targeted al-Zawahri in Damadola — apparently launched from a Predator drone controlled by the CIA in Afghanistan. At least 13 villagers were killed, but the Al Qaeda deputy chief escaped unharmed.