January 17, 2006
PESHAWAR, Pakistan —
Pakistan's ruling party on Monday demanded an apology for an alleged CIA airstrike that killed at least 17 people, but the country's prime minister said his trip to the United States this week would go ahead as planned.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q on Monday condemned the alleged U.S. airstrike on a village near the Afghan border, which intelligence officials have said targeted al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri
But Aziz said he was still scheduled to leave Tuesday for the United States, where he said he would talk about security issues but also meet business leaders to encourage foreign investment.
The leader called Friday's airstrike on a village near the Afghan border "very regrettable" but said, "I don't think that takes away from the fact that Pakistan needs investment."
The Muslim League-Q party later issued a statement demanding an official apology from the United States.
Islamic groups, meanwhile, vowed to step up anti-American protests.
Al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, was invited to an Islamic dinner in the village but did not show up, two Pakistani officials told The Associated Press.
Al-Zawahri sent some aides to the dinner instead and investigators were trying to determine whether they had been in any of the three houses destroyed in the missile strike, one of the officials said Sunday.
In Washington, a U.S counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the information's sensitivity, said it is not yet known if al-Zawahri was killed in Friday's attack.
The official said the compound that was hit has been visited in the past by significant terrorist figures. "There were strong indications that was happening again," the official said.
With media reports out of Pakistan indicating that at least four foreigners were killed, the official said it appears that some damage was done, even if al-Zawahri was not there. "This place had a history," the official said.
Islamic groups held nationwide protests Sunday as anger mounted over the attack that Pakistan said killed innocent civilians.
"There will be more ... bigger protests," Shahid Shamsi, a spokesman for the anti-American religious coalition that organized the rallies, said Monday.
Protesters believe the airstrike was ordered by the CIA and launched by U.S. forces pursuing Taliban and al-Qaida militants in neighboring Afghanistan, and Shamsi said the war on terror should not extend across borders without permission.
"Pakistani civilians, including children, were killed," Shamsi said. "Principles cannot be broken in the name of (fighting) terrorism."
In the first comments about the attack from a top U.S. official, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that serious action was necessary against al-Qaida.
"These are not people who can be dealt with lightly," Rice said.
Many in this nation of 150 million people oppose the government's participation in the U.S.-led war against international terrorist groups, and there is increasing frustration over a recent series of suspected U.S. attacks along the frontier aimed at militants.
"They should try to work to improve their image," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said Monday of U.S. activities in the region.
A senior army official told The Associated Press on Sunday that "foreigners" were reported in the area around the village of Damadola, four miles from the Afghanistan border, but he said there was no information al-Zawahri was among them.
A number of al-Qaida and Taliban combatants, including al-Zawahri and bin Laden, are believed to have taken refuge in the rugged mountains along on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Katherine Shrader in Washington contributed to this report.