Pakistan formally protested to the US yesterday over an air strike in a remote tribal area which was thought to have Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of al-Qa'ida, as its target. At least 17 people were killed, but there were conflicting claims whether Osama bin Laden's chief ally was among them.
The CIA is believed to have fired missiles from Predator aircraft at Damadola village in the tribal area of Bajaur, near the border with Afghanistan. The US did not comment officially, but American television networks, citing unnamed intelligence sources, initially reported Zawahiri might have been among the dead.
The Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said he had no knowledge of Zawahiri's fate, or whether he was in the village. Pakistani intelligence sources said later, however, that the al-Qa'ida leader was not in Damadola at the time, and that the Americans had acted on "false information". Further adding to the mystery, a Pakistani intelligence source was quoted as saying several bodies were taken away for DNA tests - but he did not say who took them.
The deaths of women and children in the attack provoked angry street demonstrations by thousands of tribesmen in the area yesterday, and a mob set fire to the office of a US-backed aid agency.
Local people in Damadola said the al-Qa'ida number two had never visited the village, and that all of the dead were local civilians. According to local doctors 17 people were killed in the attack, but one teenage villager, Sami Ullah, said 24 of his relatives died. "My entire family was killed, and I don't know who I should blame for it," he said.
The death of Zawahiri would be the biggest American success in the hunt for al-Qa'ida leaders. The Egyptian doctor has been described as bin Laden's mentor, and frequently appeared at his side in videotaped messages. More recently he has become the public face of al-Qa'ida. Nothing has been heard from bin Laden in more than a year - leading to speculation Zawahiri may have taken over as operational leader.
While President Pervez Musharraf is one of America's closest allies in the "war on terror", his stance is deeply unpopular at home, and Pakistan refuses to allow US forces to cross into its territory in pursuit of al-Qa'ida and Taliban forces. "We will not allow such incidents to reoccur," Sheikh Ahmed said yesterday. But he refused to name the US as responsible for the air strike.
"We deeply regret that civilian lives have been lost," the minister said. "While this act is highly condemnable, we have been for a long time striving to rid all our tribal areas of foreign intruders who have been responsible for all the misery and violence in the region. This situation has to be brought to an end."
Bajaur is one of the tribal agencies, a leftover from British colonial times where the writ of Pakistani law does not extend, governed entirely by tribal custom. The tribal areas have long been cited as a possible hiding place for bin Laden and Zawahiri, and Bajaur borders Konar, one of the most restive provinces in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are at their strongest.
News of the attack coincides with the disclosure in a new book that Britain was "screaming" for the US to bomb drugs laboratories and warehouses in Afghanistan in late 2001, but the Pentagon refused. It quotes a CIA source who says bombing the facilities "would have slowed down drug production in Afghan-istan for a year or more".
State of War, by New York Times reporter James Risen, has already caused controversy in the US with its revelation that President George Bush authorised illegal wiretaps on American citizens. But the book also reveals a rift between Britain and the US as they planned to drive al-Qa'ida out of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Intensive surveillance of remote Afghan areas, prompted by the search for al-Qa'ida, yielded high-quality digital images of the headquarters of a number of the country's leading drugs warlords, a Whitehall source told The Independent on Sunday.
"We were looking at what could have been military installations," said the source. "They were so well-guarded and well-equipped it was amazing. It gave us an insight into just how seriously organised the heroin trade is at the top."
Geoff Hoon, then Secretary of State for Defence, was keen to mount air attacks on the facilities that were used to process opium and store the highly valuable product. Since more than 90 per cent of Britain's heroin comes from Afghanistan, he believed the strikes would deliver a direct benefit to the UK and bolster domestic support for the military intervention. But when he took the proposal to Downing Street, he was over-ruled. No 10 blamed qualms by legal officers for its decision, claiming they believed such strikes could not be justified under international law. According to Mr Risen, however, Washington was the obstacle.
Intelligence officials had spent years compiling a list of potential targets in Afghanistan, including "20 to 25 major drug labs, warehouses and other drug-related facilities". But a CIA source told him the list was rejected, despite the fact that "the British were screaming for us to bomb those targets".
This was the first sign, says the writer, that the White House and Pentagon wanted nothing to do with "nation-building" problems such as narcotics in their single-minded campaign against terrorism.
* In Afghanistan, two gunmen killed Mohammed Khaksar, a former Taliban leader, in Kandahar yesterday. He renounced the regime after it was ousted in 2001. Another 10 people died and a US soldier was wounded in bombings.