Islamic leaders are calling it an American assault.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Missiles fired by Pakistani helicopters destroyed a religious school on the Afghan border Monday that the military said was a front for an al-Qaida training camp, killing 80 people and prompting strong protests against the country's president and the United States.
Islamic leaders and al-Qaida-linked militants called for nationwide demonstrations today to condemn what they claimed was an American assault on Pakistani soil. The army said those who died were militants, but furious villagers and religious leaders said the pre-dawn missile barrage killed innocent students and teachers at the school, known as a madrassa.
U.S. and Pakistani military officials denied American involvement and rejected claims that children and women died in the strike, which flattened the building in the remote northwestern village of Chingai, two miles from the Afghan border.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been under intense pressure, particularly from the U.S. and Afghanistan, to rein in militant groups, particularly along the porous Pakistan-Afghan frontier, where Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are believed to be hiding.
Among those killed in Monday's attack was Liaquat Hussain, a cleric who had sheltered militants in the past and was believed associated with al-Zawahri. The raid was launched after the madrassa's leaders rejected government warnings to stop using the school as a training camp for terrorists, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
"These militants were involved in actions inside Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan," Sultan told The Associated Press.
Militant groups in Bajur are believed to ferry fighters, weapons and supplies to Afghanistan to target U.S. forces there and Pakistani soldiers on this side of the ethnic-Pashtun majority tribal belt.
In difficult spot
The raid threatens efforts by Musharraf to persuade deeply conservative tribespeople to back his government over pro-Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, who enjoy strong support in many semiautonomous regions in northern Pakistan. The planned signing of a peace deal between tribal leaders and the military was canceled Monday in response to the airstrike.
Protests were held from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the southern city of Karachi, the largest taking place in Chingai and the Bajur district's main town of Khar, where 2,000 tribesmen and shopkeepers chanted "Death to Musharraf! Death to Bush!"
The raid was the country's deadliest military operation targeting suspected terrorists. Sultan said 80 people were killed in the building, which was 100 yards from the nearest house. Local political officials and Islamic leaders corroborated the death toll.
Sultan denied reports that al-Zawahri was in the area at the time of the attack. "It is all wrong, speculative and we launched this operation on our own to target a training facility," he said. A Bajur-area intelligence official said word was spreading among residents that al-Zawahri may have been expected at the madrassa, but he said the reports were wrong. In Islamabad, Pakistan's most influential Islamist political leader blamed American forces for the attack, without providing evidence to support his claim, and called for protests today.
"It was an American plane behind the attack and Pakistan is taking responsibility because they know there would be a civil war if the American responsibility was known," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of a six-party religious alliance opposed to Musharraf.
Ahmed claimed that 30 children were among Monday's dead. But Sultan, the army spokesman, said no children or women were killed and rejected suggestions of U.S. or NATO involvement. The U.S. military also denied involvement.
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