Eighty die as Pakistan bombs madrassa linked to militants

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The Independent Online

At least 80 people were killed in a helicopter missile attack on a madrassa in Pakistan yesterday. The force of the blast was so great that it tore the simple building apart and sprayed blood and body parts all around.

The Pakistani military claimed the carnage in the village of Chingai as a victory in the "war on terror", saying the madrassa, or religious school was an al-Qa'ida training facility and the dead were all militants. But villagers claimed that they were innocent civilians, and that among the body parts being collected for burial yesterday were those of children as young as seven.

Opposition political parties condemned the attack and called for protests.

Madrassas are the only source of education for millions of Pakistanis, but some have been accused of fomenting extremism. The Prince of Wales, who is on his first visit to Pakistan, last night cancelled a visit to Peshawar after the madrassa attack.

Chingai is inside the tribal agency of Bajaur, which the Pakistani government has declared off limits to foreign journalists. Yesterday troops were preventing even Pakistani journalists from reaching the scene.

A spokesman, Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan, said that the strike had been ordered after intensive surveillance had confirmed that the madrassa was being used "for terrorist activities and as a training camp". He said that 80 people were confirmed dead, and claimed they were all militants - half of them Pakistani, and half from other countries. He denied that children were among the dead.

But a local journalist who is based inside Bajaur agency told Reuters news agency that he saw villagers collecting the mutilated bodies of children from the wreckage. And a villager, Syed Wali, said that pupils studying at the madrassa as young as seven were among the dead. An opposition party leader claimed that 30 of the dead were children.

Later Maaulan Faqir Mohammed, a militant leader, said on television as he stood over the shrouded bodies of the dead that they were all aged between 15 and 25.

Three people were believed to have survived the attack, and were being treated in hospital.

The Pakistani military said it was responsible for the attack, but Indus Television, a private Pakistani channel, quoted "independent tribal sources" as saying that the helicopters were American. Bajaur lies just across the border from Afghanistan. The US military in Kabul denied it had been involved in the attack.

Chingai is two miles from a village called Damadola, where a US Predator drone fired a missile on a house where a dinner was being held in a failed assassination attempt on the al-Qa'ida deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in January. Zawahiri was not there, but 18 civilians were believed to have been killed, among them six children. The attack came on the day the Pakistani military was supposed to sign a truce with the local tribes in Bajaur similar to one already agreed with tribesmen in North Waziristan, another tribal agency where foreign militants are believed to be sheltering. The man who was supposed to sign the deal, Maulavi Liaqat Hussein, was believed to have been killed in yesterday's attack. The same man was a guest at the dinner which was targeted in January's American missile strike - but left just before the missile hit. He led a local militant group, Tehrik Nifaz e-Shariat Mohammedi, which has links with the Taliban and sent volunteers to fight alongside them in Afghanistan in 2001.

The Prince of Wales raised the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain, who has been convicted of the 1988 killing of a taxi driver, with the Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, as the pair walked to the Prince's car after their official meeting yesterday.