Pakistan tells U.S. not to repeat attacks on Pakistani villages

Pakistan's foreign minister told a senior U.S. diplomat on Saturday that the two countries must work together to avoid a repeat of U.S. attacks like last week's strike on a Pakistani border village that killed civilians.

Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri made the remarks to visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns at a meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said.

"While reaffirming Pakistan's commitment to counterterrorism, the foreign minister underlined the need for the two countries to work in a manner that precludes recent incidents like Bajur," the ministry said in a statement.

"He highlighted the prevailing public sentiment and stressed that such incidents were counterproductive," it said.

The Jan. 13 airstrike on the village of Damadola, in the mountainous area of Bajur near the Afghan border, apparently targeted but missed Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's No. 2 leader.

The blast is believed to have killed at least 13 civilians, including women and children, and has triggered nationwide protests against the United States and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Earlier in the day, Musharraf told Burns "what happened in Bajur must not be repeated," a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk publicly to the media.

The comments were Musharraf's first publicized reaction to the attack.

But Musharraf also pledged to continue helping the United States in its war on terror, the official said. Pakistan is one of the top U.S. allies in the effort, although the recent attack has fueled resentment in a country where many oppose the ties.

A Foreign Ministry statement issued after Musharraf's meeting did not mention the leader's comments on the airstrike. Instead it said Musharraf expressed gratitude for Washington's assistance in relief efforts for an Oct. 8 earthquake that devastated the country's north.

Pakistani intelligence officials, meanwhile, said al-Qaida's second-in-command met his deputy last year at the house hit in the attack, in which at least four of the terror network's operatives are believed to have been killed.

Al-Zawahri met his deputy, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, in Damadola early last year, a security official said on condition of anonymity. He added that Libyan-born al-Libbi told Pakistani interrogators of the meeting after his capture in Pakistan in May 2005.

Al-Libbi, once al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, is accused of masterminding two attempts to assassinate Musharraf. After his arrest, he was turned over to Washington for further investigation.

The two are believed to have met at the house of Bakhtpur Khan, which was destroyed in the pre-dawn airstrike. Khan is also listed among the 13 who are believed to have died.

U.S. and Pakistani intelligence _ helped by tribesmen and Afghans _ began monitoring Khan's home after the al-Libbi confession, the officials said.

Pakistani authorities suspect al-Qaida operatives had gathered last week in Damadola to eat dinner and plan attacks to be carried out early this year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, another intelligence official said.

The officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity due to the issue's sensitivity, said at least four foreign militants also may have died in the attack, including al-Qaida explosives and chemical weapons expert Midhat Mursi and a son-in-law of al-Zawahri. The United States is offering a US$5 million (€4.1 million) reward for Mursi.

Pakistani and U.S. officials have reportedly said that the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri skipped the meeting and was not killed in the attack.

An Islamic Web site released a tape from al-Zawahri on Friday, but U.S. officials said the tape could have been made much earlier. Al-Zawahri did not discuss the Damadola attacks in his comments, but praised the "martyrs of holy war" in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Pakistani authorities have released conflicting statements about the airstrike in recent days. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Friday there was no "tangible evidence" that any extremists had gathered in Damadola, while Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and provincial authorities earlier confirmed the presence of "foreign terrorists" in the area on the night of the attack.

Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, an opposition Islamic coalition, has organized a series of anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country to protest the airstrike, including a massive rally in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province where Damadola is located.

Pakistani authorities have arrested more than 700 al-Qaida suspects, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh _ all alleged planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, AP reported.

V.A.