The dead bodies of foreign terrorists killed in a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan probably have been taken to inaccessible mountainous areas on the Afghan border, where al-Qaida leaders are believed to be seeking refuge, officials said Wednesday. The strike which intelligence officials said was aimed at al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri killed 18 villagers and strained relations between Washington and Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S. campaign against terrorism.
The aggression triggered widespread fury in this Islamic nation of 150 million people, and sparked calls for Islamabad to end its uneasy alliance with the U.S.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, just before leaving on Tuesday for an official visit to Washington, said attacks inside Pakistan "cannot be condoned" despite the importance of U.S. ties. Pakistani intelligence officials have said the attack had targeted al-Zawahri, who had been invited to an Islamic holiday dinner celebration in the border village but who sent aides instead.
However, United States counterterrorism officials have not ruled out that al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, was killed in the pre-dawn attack Friday in the northwestern mountain hamlet of
Damadola, just on the Pakistan side of the border. In Pakistani authorities' first official confirmation that the raid killed militants, the administration of the area's semiautonomous tribal regions said in a statement Tuesday that the four or five bodies of "foreign terrorists," among 10 to 12 extremists attending the dinner, were taken away "by their companions."
It did not identify them.
On Wednesday, Shah Zaman Khan, director-general of media relations for Pakistan's tribal areas, said the terrorists' bodies are now probably in "inaccessible mountainous areas" along the rugged, ill-defined border.
The area is a suspected hide-out for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who sought refuge after the U.S-led war that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
"Efforts are underway to investigate further," Khan said. "The administration is also trying to arrest those clerics who were believed to be there."
Officials believe two area clerics Maulana Faqir Mohammed and Liaqat Ali attended the dinner, while al-Zawahri didn't. The clerics are wanted by local authorities for allegedly harboring militants. There have been conflicting accounts from Pakistani officials and witnesses over who, if anyone, reclaimed bodies from the missile strike scene.
Damadola residents say that all the victims were area residents, and that they buried them all. One Pakistani official told The Associated Press on Saturday that bodies had been taken away for DNA tests, but it wasn't clear by whom.
In Washington, a U.S counterterrorism official said Monday that a compound hit in the attack had been visited in the past by significant terrorist figures, and that there were "strong indications that was happening again."
However, Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao would only say Tuesday there was a "possibility" the strike killed foreigners. He told the AP that the government had "no information" about al-Zawahri's presence.
Before leaving for the U.S., Aziz was grim.
"Pakistan has committed to fighting terrorism, but naturally we cannot accept any action within our country which results in what happened over the weekend," he said of the missile strike. White House press secretary Scott McClellan again refused to discuss the attack Tuesday, but said the United States "will continue to pursue al-Qaida terrorists wherever they are", reports the AP.