Islamabad, Jan. 15 (Reuters): A dinner invitation to al Qaida’s second-in-command triggered a US airstrike in Pakistan but Ayman al-Zawahri failed to show up, Pakistani intelligence officials said today.
Pakistan condemned Friday’s strike, which killed at least 18 people including women and children, and summoned US ambassador Ryan Crocker to protest.
There were anti-American demonstrations in several towns and cities today, and supporters of Islamist and secular parties mustered close to 10,000 people for a rally in the southern city of Karachi.
The foreign ministry yesterday said foreigners had been near the village of Damadola in the Bajaur region bordering Afghanistan and were the probable target.
Pakistani intelligence officials said they were checking reports up to seven foreign militants had been killed and their bodies removed by local supporters.
But they said there were no indications Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Zawahri, was there. “He was invited for the dinner, but we have no evidence he was present,” a senior intelligence official said.
Al Arabiya television quoted a source it said had contact with al Qaida saying Zawahri was alive.
The US has not commented, but American sources familiar with the operation said it was too early to determine his fate and the remains of the dead would have to be examined.
The sources said the airstrike was based on “very good” intelligence indicating Zawahri was at the targeted location.
Another Pakistani intelligence official said two local Islamist clerics, known for harbouring al Qaida militants, had attended the dinner but left hours before the airstrike at 3.00 am (local time).
But there is widespread cynicism in Pakistan regarding what the US says and what it does.
“America raised the bogey of Zawahri to provide justification for this attack,” said Meraj-ul-Huda, a local leader of Pakistan’s main Islamist alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, attending the rally in Karachi.
Washington has offered $25 million each for Zawahri and bin Laden, who have been on the run since US-led forces toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in 2001.
The two have long been thought to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border under the protection of Pashtun tribes.