CHINGAI, Pakistan – Pakistani troops backed by helicopters on Monday raided a religious school purportedly being used as an al-Qaida training center, killing 80 people in the country’s deadliest strike ever against suspected Islamic militants, the military said.
The pre-dawn missile strike on the religious school — known as a madrassa — sparked angry protests in Chingai, Khar and other Bajur towns. Local leaders and witnesses said all those killed were students and teachers.
The tensions threatened to derail peace efforts between government officials and leaders in this tribal region, which has long been a hive of militant activity opposed to Pakistani troops in the area and U.S. forces in
Helicopter gunships fired four to five missiles into the madrassa, which had up to 80 people inside, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. The blasts tore apart the building and all inside, spraying body parts, blood and debris across a wide area.
Sultan said initial estimates indicate the attack killed about 80 suspected militants from Pakistan and other countries. Only three people are believed to have survived.
“These militants were involved in actions inside Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan,” Sultan told The Associated Press.
Sultan said the madrassa was used as a front to train militants and the attack was launched after those in charge of the building refused warnings by the military during the past few weeks to close it down.
Several hours after the attack, thousands of enraged locals attended three mass funerals held one after the other in a field near the madrassa, according to an AP journalist at the scene.
Before burial, the remains of at least 50 people were laid on traditional wooden beds placed side by side in rows and covered with colored blankets. Locals walked among the beds and offered prayers.
An accurate count was not possible due to the mutilated state of the remains and placing of two or more bodies in some cases on single beds.
“We heard helicopters flying in and then heard bombs,” said one of the villagers, Haji Youssef. “We were all saddened by what we have seen.”
Thousands of people traveled from nearby villages to inspect the destroyed madrassa, some crying and others chanting “Long live Islam.” The blast leveled the building, tearing mattresses and scattering Islamic books, including copies of the Quran.
In Khar, some 2,000 tribesmen and shopkeepers marched through the main street and railed against Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and
President Bush. “Death to Musharraf, Death to Bush,” the procession chanted.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s most powerful religious political leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, said claims that the madrassa was a terrorist training center were “rubbish,” adding that 30 children were among the dead.
Ahmed urged Pakistanis to stage nationwide rallies Tuesday to condemn the Pakistani government and its U.S. allies.
Pakistan’s military has been trying to stamp out pro-al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists operating inside this semiautonomous tribal-dominated region and against U.S. and Afghan forces across the poorly marked and volatile Pakistan-Afghan frontier, where
Osama bin Laden is believed to be at large.
Among the dead was Liaquat Hussain, a local Islamic cleric who ran the madrassa and is believed to have been sheltering al-Qaida militants, and several of his aides, locals said.
Siraj ul-Haq, a Cabinet minister from the North West Frontier Province, condemned the attack and announced he would resign in protest.
“The government has launched an attack during the night, which is against Islam and the traditions of the area,” ul-Haq told the AP during the funeral. “They (the victims) were not given any warning. This was an unprovoked attack on a madrassa.”
The attack happened about two miles from Damadola, another Bajur village where in January a U.S. Predator drone fired a missile that purportedly targeted — and missed — al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, but killed several al-Qaida members and civilians instead.
In Afghanistan, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Matt Hackathorn said he had no knowledge of any U.S. involvement in the attack.
“It was completely done by the Pakistani military,” he told the AP.
The attack came two days after 5,000 pro-Taliban tribesmen held an anti-American rally near Damadola.
It also coincided with the Monday’s planned signing of a peace deal between Bajur tribal leaders and the military along the lines of an accord signed earlier this year in nearby North Waziristan, which aims at stopping militants operating in the area and crossing into Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan officials believe the deal could make North Waziristan a terrorist haven.
Pakistan became a key U.S. ally in its war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks and has deployed about 80,000 soldiers in the tribal region to flush out Taliban and al-Qaida militants hiding there.