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Last Updated: Monday, 30 October 2006, 17:39 GMT
'Shock and awe' on Afghan border
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News

Bodies after the Chinagai attack
Locals say civilians were killed in the attack

The missile strike that has killed close to 80 alleged militants in Pakistan's Bajaur area appears to have targeted well-known supporters of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

But exactly who was killed at Chinagai remains unclear as paramilitary troops prevented reporters from travelling to the area.

A number of locals and a senior minister in North-West Frontier Province, Siraj-ul-Haq, who led funeral prayers for those killed, said that there were several children among the dead.

Surprisingly, the attack came on a day when the government and local militants were scheduled to sign a peace deal mediated by tribal elders.

Clerics targeted

One of militant leaders known to have died in the attack is Maulana Liaqat, the head of the seminary that was targeted by the missiles.

We heard two blasts at about 4:50 am, whereas the Pakistani helicopters appeared a good 10 minutes later
Bajaur attack witness

Maulana Liaqat was also a leader of the pro-Taleban movement, Tanzim Nifaz Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) that spearheaded a violent Islamic movement in Bajaur and the neighbouring Malakand areas in 1994.

The TNSM also led some 5,000 men from the Pakistani areas of Dir, Swat and Bajaur across the Mamond border into Afghanistan in October 2001 to fight US-led troops.

Another local cleric, Maulana Faqir Mohammad, currently heads the TNSM in Bajaur agency.

Both Faqir Mohammad and Maulana Liaqat were wanted by the government for harbouring Taleban militants and training fighters for the war in Afghanistan.

Early reports suggested that Faqir Mohammad had also been killed in Monday's attack.

But he later turned up at the funeral where he made a speech condemning the raid and vowing to continue support for "jihad against the Americans" in Afghanistan.

He told a reporter of al-Jazeera TV that the attack had been launched by forces "opposed to a North Waziristan-like rapprochement between the government and tribal people".

Earlier raid

Pakistan's government faced criticism over its controversial peace deal with pro-Taleban tribal militants in September.

map

Faqir Mohammad avoided a US missile attack in January - in the village of Damadola just two kilometres away from the site of Monday's air strikes - in which 13 people were killed.

Media reports quoting intelligence sources suggested that one of the targets of that attack was the al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who apparently failed to show up at the venue.

Initially, Faqir Mohammad was believed to have been killed in that attack, but next morning he led the funeral prayers of those who were killed.

He remained in the area for nearly a week, granting interviews to the media and holding condolence meetings for the dead.

Those who died in the Damadola attack were believed to be civilians, including women and children belonging to a local jewellers' family.

The government's claim that at least five al-Qaeda operatives of foreign origin were also killed in the attack was never substantiated.

Government officials had claimed at the time that Maulana Faqir Mohammad and Maulana Liaqat removed the bodies of the al-Qaeda men before the officials or the media arrived on the scene.

Staging ground

If the latest body count is confirmed, it would take the combined death toll of the two attacks to 93, a high figure for this remote corner of the Pakistani tribal belt.

Protest in Islamabad in January 2006
Many in Pakistan oppose the US-led "war on terror"

But it is also a sign of the attention that the Mamond valley is receiving from the US and Pakistani authorities.

The valley, which constitutes an administrative sub-division of Bajaur agency, has housed training camps for both Afghan and Kashmiri militants in the past.

The local population hosted a large number of Arab mujahideen during 1980s and 1990s, and opened up to the influence of some extremist factions of the Islamic Brotherhood.

The area served as an important staging ground for Afghan and local mujahideen to organise and conduct raids as far afield as Kabul during the days of the Soviet occupation.

The area was targeted in air raids by Soviet jets and helicopter gunships which aimed for mujahideen camps but often hit civilian targets.

It still hosts a large Afghan refugee population sympathetic to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahideen leader ideologically close to the Arab militants.

A one time protégé of Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency, Mr Hekmatyar is still reported to be operating in the area.

The US says militants based in Bajaur launch frequent attacks on American and Afghan troops in the adjoining Afghan province of Kunar.

The missile attack on Damadola in January sparked widespread criticism of the Pakistani government, forcing it to publicly distance itself from the reported policy of allowing the US to launch attacks inside Pakistan.

Motive

Monday's attack may create a similar controversy, with one media report claiming that the missile attack was launched by a US drone.

Ayman al-Zawahiri
Zawahiri was rumoured to have been in the area in January

An eyewitness interviewed on the telephone by the BBC News website appeared to corroborate that view.

"We heard two blasts at about 4:50 am, whereas the Pakistani helicopters appeared a good 10 minutes later," the witness, who did not wish to be named, said.

The question is, why would the government risk another controversy at a time when it was close to signing an agreement with the militants?

Also, the law and order situation in the area has not been bad enough to warrant a surgical strike.

If there were any intelligence reports to justify an attack, they have not been shared with the media.

Some circles believe the attack was either conducted by the US, or under their pressure.

Others expect some political repercussions but think President Musharraf will weather this storm as he did the last one over the Damadola attack.


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