Pakistan’s army spokesman said Tuesday that the military used intelligence from U.S.-led coalition forces in a helicopter attack that left 80 people dead. Thousands of angry tribesmen decried both governments over the killings and threatened to launch a wave of suicide attacks against Pakistani troops.
Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the chief army spokesman, told The Associated Press that American forces did not take part in Monday’s attack on a religious school, or madrassa, that Pakistan called a front for an al-Qaida training camp.
But he said his government received intelligence as part of long-standing cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan to battle terrorists operating along the porous border between the countries.
“Intelligence sharing was definitely there, but to say they (the coalition) have carried out the operation, that is absolutely wrong,” Sultan said. “One doesn’t know … what was the percentage of help (was provided).”
Sultan later contacted the AP to deny he had made the remarks.
In Kabul, Col. Tom Collins, a U.S. military spokesman, said it is common knowledge that the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan share intelligence as part of a three-way military agreement. But he said he had no information regarding the recent operation in Pakistan.
Another U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick, said the U.S. did not participate in the attack or provide the Pakistanis with any forces, aircraft or equipment. He declined to say, however, if other American assistance was provided.
“Pakistan is a U.S. ally in the war on terror and the United States does routinely share intelligence with its allies, however, I cannot comment on any particular operation,” he said.
As many as 20,000 people protested Tuesday in Khar, the main town in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal Bajur district, claiming innocent students and teachers were killed in the attack. They chanted: “God is Great!” “Death to Bush! Death to Musharraf!” and “Anyone who is a friend of America is a traitor!”
In a fiery speech, local pro-Taliban elder Inayatur Rahman said he had prepared a “squad of suicide bombers” to target Pakistani security forces in the same way that militants are attacking Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We will carry out these suicide attacks soon,” he said, asking the crowd if they approved the idea. The angry mob yelled back in unison, “Yes!”
One of three people who survived the raid said Tuesday the school was not used by terrorists, and many children were among dead.
“There was not militant training in the madrassa (religious school),” said 22-year-old Abu Bakar, from Loi Sam, a Bajur tribal district town 10 miles from Chinghai, the village where Monday’s attack took place, about two miles from Afghan border.
“We had come here to learn Allah’s religion,” Bakar, whose legs were broken by rubble that fell on him after the missile strike, said from the hospital where he was being treated.
Bakar said 86 people were inside the seminary and just two other students _ ages 15 and 16 _ survived the raid. Many children, including some as young as 5 years old, were among the dead, he said.
“I am wounded but am more saddened by the deaths of small, innocent children,” said Bakar.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar, 500 members of a hard-line Islamic group burned an effigy of President Bush and denounced Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Smaller protests were held in Multan, Quetta and Lahore.
Islamic leaders had called for nationwide protests Tuesday to denounce the raid. It was the deadliest military operation known to have been launched against suspected militants in the country.
Pakistan said its helicopters fired five missiles into the madrassa, flattening the building and killing 80 people inside.
The attack threatened Musharraf’s efforts to persuade deeply conservative tribespeople to back his government’s efforts against pro-Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, who enjoy strong support in many semiautonomous regions in northern Pakistan.
It also sparked claims of U.S. collusion with Pakistan, with villagers saying fixed-wing drone aircraft were seen flying over the town in the days before the attack, according to the Dawn daily newspaper.
In January, a U.S. Predator drone fired a missile targeting al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman-al-Zawahri in Damadola, near Chingai. The strike missed al-Zawahri, but killed several other al-Qaida members and civilians and sparked massive anti-U.S. protests across Pakistan.
Pakistan also witnessed violent protests this year after European newspapers published cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, and after the August killing of a ethnic-Baluch tribal chief in another Pakistani military raid.
Scores of pro-government tribal police deployed throughout Bajur on Tuesday and blocked roads with stones to prevent political activists and journalists reaching Khar and Chingai, a local government official said on condition of anonymity as he was unauthorized to speak to the media.
Small protests were held in several Pakistani cities, including Peshawar, Karachi and Multan on Monday. The unrest caused Britain’s Prince Charles, currently in Pakistan, to cancel his planned Tuesday trip to Peshawar in the country’s northwest.
Many local lawmakers and regional Cabinet ministers resigned in protest over the attack. The planned signing of a peace deal between tribal leaders and the military was also canceled Monday in response to the airstrike.
“Islamabad is acting against its own citizens who profess loyalty, promise to maintain peace and to … eliminate foreign militants,” a Pakistan daily, The Nation, said in an editorial.
Ali Dayan Hasan, a South Asia representative for Human Rights Watch, accused Pakistani authorities of “persistent use of excessive and disproportionate force … in pursuing counter-terror operations.”
Among those killed Monday was Liaquat Hussain, a fugitive cleric and al-Zawahri associate who ran the targeted madrassa. The raid was launched after Hussain rejected government warnings to stop using the school as a terrorist training camp, the military said.
Another al-Zawahri lieutenant, Faqir Mohammed, left the madrassa 30 minutes before the strike, according to a Bajur intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Pakistan’s most influential Islamist political leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, was to lead a convoy of cars Tuesday from the northwestern city of Peshawar to Khar and Chingai, his spokesman, Shahid Shamsi, said.
“They killed 80 teenagers who were students of the Quran,” Ahmed told reporters on Monday. “This is a very cruel joint activity (between the U.S. and Musharraf governments).”
Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report. Sadaqat Jan reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.