DAMADOLA, Pakistan – Pakistan on Saturday condemned a purported CIA airstrike on a border village that officials said unsuccessfully targeted Al Qaeda's second-in-command, and said it was protesting to the U.S. Embassy over the attack that killed at least 17 people.
Thousands of local tribesmen, chanting "God is Great," demonstrated against the attack, claiming the victims were local villagers without terrorist links and had never hosted Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Two senior Pakistani officials told The Associated Press that the CIA acted on incorrect information in launching the attack early Friday in the northwestern village of Damadola, near the Afghan border.
Citing unidentified American intelligence officials, U.S. news networks reported that CIA-operated Predator drone aircraft carried out the missile strike because Al-Zawahiri, Usama bin Laden's top lieutenant, was thought to be at a compound in the village or about to arrive.
"Their information was wrong, and our investigations conclude that they acted on a false information," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official with direct knowledge of Pakistan's investigations into the attack.
His account was confirmed by a senior government official who said Al-Zawahiri "was not there." Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.
Washington had no comment on the reports that the attack was aimed at Al-Zawahiri, who has a $25 million U.S. government bounty on his head. Like bin Laden, he is believed to have been hiding along the rugged Pakistan-Afghan frontier since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Pakistan's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, called the "incident" in Damadola "highly condemnable."
The Foreign Ministry later issued a statement saying a protest had been filed with the U.S. Embassy.
"According to preliminary investigations there was foreign presence in the area and that in all probability was targeted from across the border in Afghanistan," the Foreign Ministry said.
"The investigations are still continuing. Meanwhile the Foreign Office has lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Rakesh Surampudi said the protest had not been received by Saturday evening.
An AP reporter who visited Damadola about 12 hours after the attack saw three destroyed houses, hundreds of yards apart. Villagers had buried at least 15 people, including women and children, and were digging for more bodies in the rubble.
Villagers denied hosting Al-Zawahiri or any other member of Al Qaeda or Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime, and said all the dead were local people.
More than 8,000 tribesmen staged a peaceful protest in a nearby town Saturday to condemn the airstrike, which one speaker described as "open terrorism." Police dispersed a smaller protest in another town using tear gas. A mob burned the office of a U.S.-backed aid agency near Damadola, but nobody was injured, residents said.
NBC News reported that U.S. and Pakistani officials said Predator drones had fired as many as 10 missiles at Damadola in the Bajur tribal region. ABC quoted anonymous Pakistani military sources as saying Al-Zawahiri could have been among five top Al Qaeda officials believed killed.
A second Pakistani intelligence official told AP that the remains of some bodies had "quickly been removed" from Damadola after the strike and DNA tests were being conducted, but would not say by whom. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
The official said that hours before the strike some unidentified guests had arrived at the home of a tribesman named Shah Zaman.
Zaman, who said three of his children were killed when his home was destroyed, told AP he was a "law-abiding" laborer and had no ties to Al-Zawahiri or any other militants.
"I don't know him. He was not at my home. No foreigner was at my home when the planes came and dropped bombs," Zaman said.
Local lawmaker Sahibzada Haroon ur Rashid, who visited Damadola soon after the attack, said the dead had been buried and that no foreigners were among them. They came from a local family of jewelers, he said, adding that none of the bodies was burned so badly that identification was difficult.
In Washington, Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and intelligence officials all said they had no information on the reports concerning Al-Zawahiri. A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Lt. Mike Cody, referred questions on the matter to the Pentagon.
Doctors told AP that at least 17 people died in the attack, but residents of Damadola, a Pashtun tribal hamlet on a hillside about four miles from the Afghan border, said more than 30 died. They recounted hearing aircraft fly overhead before explosions in the village that were felt miles away.
Speaking as he dug through the rubble of his home, Zaman said he heard planes at around 2:40 a.m. and then eight huge explosions. He said planes had been flying over the village for three or four days.
At another destroyed house, Sami Ullah, a 17-year-old student, said 24 of his family members were killed and vowed he would "seek justice from God."
The attack was the latest in a series of strikes on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan that have not been explained by authorities but are widely suspected to have targeted terror suspects or Islamic militants.
Pakistan lodged a protest Monday with the U.S. military in Afghanistan after a reported U.S. air strike killed eight people in the North Waziristan tribal region last Saturday. Pakistan says it does not allow U.S. forces to cross the border in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
In Afghanistan, Mohammed Hasan, deputy police chief of Kunar province, which is opposite Bajur, said U.S. forces had for weeks been patrolling in airplanes along the rugged border, which he described as a hide-out for Arab terrorists.
Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, has appeared regularly over the Internet and in Arab media to encourage Muslims to attack Americans and U.S. interests worldwide.