'No evidence' that Zawahiri was present when bomb hit

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The deputy leader of al-Qa'ida may have survived an American air strike in Pakistan because he did not turn up to a dinner at which he was expected. As the reports emerged yesterday, thousands of Pakistanis took part in angry street protests at the air strike, in which 18 civilians are believed to have died, including six children.

In a speech broadcast on national television, President Pervez Musharraf called on Pakistanis to stop sheltering al-Qa'ida leaders and other militants for the good of the country.

The air strike in Damadola village in the Bajaur tribal agency was triggered by intelligence that Zawahiri had been invited to a dinner there to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, Pakistani sources said yesterday. "He was invited for the dinner, but we have no evidence that he was present," said a senior intelligence official. The al-Arabiya television news network said yesterday it had received reliable information that the al-Qa'ida number two was still alive. But American sources insisted that the attack had been based on "very good" intelligence, and said it was too early to be sure Zawahiri had survived. The sources said that the remains of the dead would have to be examined.

Three houses were destroyed by missiles fired from an unmanned American Predator drone, including the one in which the dinner party was being held. The US has not commented officially on the air strike, but it is believed to have been a CIA operation. The CIA is known to operate its own Predator drones, but their operations are classified and it rarely comments on them.

Local officials say 18 civilians were killed, but Pakistani intelligence sources were quoted as saying the actual death toll was higher and included 11 militants - seven of Arab origin, and four Pakistanis. A report in The New York Times said that the bodies of the seven Arabs were taken away by a local cleric who had been at the dinner but left before the air strike, Maulavi Liaqat. The bodies of the four Pakistani militants were taken by a second cleric, Maulavi Atta Mohammed. Dawn newspaper reported that both clerics were wanted in Pakistan for harbouring militants.

If Zawahiri were killed it would be the biggest success the US had enjoyed in its hunt for al-Qa'ida militants. Regarded as Osama bin Laden's mentor, Zawahiri is at the heart of the al-Qa'ida leadership and the US has a $25m (£14m) bounty on his head.

Recently he has begun to take a more prominent role, emerging as the public face of al-Qa'ida and issuing his own video and audio messages, while nothing has been heard from Bin Laden in more than a year - leading to speculation that Zawahiri may have taken over as operational leader.

One of Zawahiri's wives is a member of the Mohmand tribe of Pahstuns who are the majority population in Damadola village, and it would be natural for him to visit her to celebrate Eid. Bajaur lies along the border with Afghanistan that has long been considered a possible hiding place for Bin Laden and Zawahiri. It is one of the tribal agencies, a leftover from British colonial rule where tribal law applies and Pakistani security forces rarely venture. It borders Konar province in Afghanistan, one of the areas where the resurgent Taliban are at their strongest.

In a speech to tribesmen broadcast on national television yesterday, President Musharraf said: "If we harbour foreign terrorists, those who carry out bomb blasts throughout the world, then remember that our future is not good ... They should tell us about them so we take action against them." General Musharraf is one of the US's closest allies in its "war on terror" but protests that saw 10,000 people on the streets of Karachi and calls for him to resign show how much popular opposition there is to his support for the US.