Pakistan Braces for a Backlash After Taliban Raid

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The bodies of alleged militants killed in an airstrike are readied for burial Monday, October 30, 2006 in Chingai village, Pakistan, an area near the Afghan Border.

A Pakistani military air strike on a pro-Taliban religious school in the country's volatile North West Frontier Province has set off a flurry of protest in Pakistan, and threatens to stoke the fires of local insurgency against the central government. It has also raised questions about the target and authors of the assault.

Helicopters attacked a madrassa near the town of Khar just before dawn, drowning out the muezzin's call to prayer with a barrage of bullets and missiles. Within two hours the main building of the seminary had collapsed, killing some 80 men inside, according to local witnesses. The madrassa was reputed to be a refuge for local and Afghan Taliban, and its firebrand leader, Maulvi Liaqatullah — believed to have been killed in attack, according to army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan — was a vocal Taliban supporter.

Although the Pakistani military immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, rumors abound in the region that the U.S. may have had a hand in its planning. The lawless region running along the southeastern border with Afghanistan has long been a haven for Islamist militants. A large number of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters retreated there from Afghanistan following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and the fugitives currently sheltering there are believed to include Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Last January, a botched U.S. air strike in Damadola, two miles from Khar, was meant to take out al-Zawahiri; instead it got only his son-in-law, and some 16 civilians. Resentment over that attack is still running high, and many question why the Pakistani military would strike a madrassa, the sole educational opportunity available in the impoverished district — particularly on a day when they were due to open peace talks with the area's tribal elders and militants. ABC News reported Monday that al-Zawahiri was the actual target of the operation, and that it was launched by a U.S. predator drone, not a Pakistani helicopter.

But according to Sultan, the Pakistani army had been monitoring suspected militant activity at the madrassa for some time. "Yes, the compound was originally a seminary," he says. "But no religious activities were taking place, just militant activities. We gave a warning to the cleric to shut these activities down, but he continued. We can have no tolerance for these kind of activities."

The raid comes at a delicate time for President Pervez Musharraf, who has come under mounting pressure from the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to crack down on Taliban infiltration from Pakistani territory, despite the popularity of their cause among the local tribesmen. Just two days earlier, Liaqatullah had spoken at a rally where more than 5,000 armed men chanted anti-American and anti-Musharraf slogans, and pledged to wage jihad until every single foreign soldier had been evicted from Afghan soil.

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