DAMADOLA, Pakistan - Pakistan on Saturday condemned a deadly airstrike in which the U.S. reportedly targeted al-Qaida's second-in-command, as villagers whose homes were destroyed denied the militant was ever there and thousands of Pakistanis protested the attack.
The statement came after U.S. networks, citing unnamed American intelligence officials, reported that a CIA-operated Predator drone aircraft carried out the missile strike Friday and that it was aimed at Ayman al-Zawahri in the Bajur tribal region of northwestern Pakistan.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed did not directly blame the U.S. for the attack, which killed at least 17 people, but he said the government wanted "to assure the people we will not allow such incidents to reoccur."
Two Pakistani officials told The Associated Press on Saturday that the CIA had acted on incorrect information, and al-Zawahri was not in the village of Damadola when it came under attack. Al-Zawahri is ranked No. 2 in the al-Qaida terror network, second only to Osama bin Laden.
"Their information was wrong, and our investigations conclude that they acted on a false information," said a senior intelligence official. His account was confirmed by a senior government official, who said al-Zawahri "was not there."
Meanwhile, sporadic protests broke out against the attack and hundreds of local tribesmen torched the office of the Associated Development Construction, a U.S.-funded aid group, in Khar, a small town near Bajur. The mob ransacked furniture and computers, but no injuries were reported, resident Haji Habibullah said.
An AP reporter who visited the scene in Damadola village about 12 hours after the airstrike saw three destroyed houses hundreds of yards apart. Villagers recounted hearing aircraft overhead moments before the attack. By their count at least 30 people died, including women and children.
There was no confirmation from either Islamabad or Washington on the reports that al-Zawahri had been targeted, but a Pakistani intelligence official said the CIA had told Pakistani agents that they had targeted al-Zawahri in the attack.
Villagers in Damadola denied hosting al-Zawahri or any other al-Qaida or Taliban figure, saying all the dead were local people. On Saturday, more than 8,000 tribesmen staged a peaceful protest in a nearby town to condemn the airstrike, which one speaker described as "open terrorism."
Earlier, the second intelligence official told AP the remains of some bodies had "quickly been removed" from Damadola after the strike and DNA tests were being conducted, but would not say by whom. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
The official added that hours before the strike some unidentified guests had arrived at the home of one tribesman named Shah Zaman.
Zaman, whose home was destroyed, told AP he was a "law-abiding" laborer and had no ties to militants. He was not hurt but said three of his children were killed.
A local lawmaker who visited Damadola soon after the attack said no foreigners were among the dead. Sahibzada Haroon ur Rashid said all the bodies were identifiable and the victims were a family of jewelers.
The spokesman for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, only said the explosions in the village were under investigation.
In Washington, Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and intelligence officials all said they had no information on the reports concerning al-Zawahri.
In Afghanistan, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Mike Cody referred questions on the matter to the Pentagon. The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan referred questions to the Pakistan government.
Doctors told AP that at least 17 people died in the attack. But at one destroyed house, Sami Ullah, a 17-year-old student, said he alone lost 24 of his relatives. Five women were weeping nearby, cursing the attackers.
"My entire family was killed, and I don't know whom should I blame for it," Ullah said. "I only seek justice from God."
Zaman said he heard planes at around 2:40 a.m. and then eight explosions. Speaking as he dug through the rubble of his home, he said planes had been flying over the village for the last three or four days.
"I ran out and saw planes were dropping bombs," said Zaman, 40, who lost two sons and a daughter. "I saw my home being hit."
The attack was the latest in a series of strikes on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan, unexplained by authorities but widely suspected to have targeted terror suspects or Islamic militants.
Pakistan lodged a protest Monday with the U.S. military in Afghanistan after a reported U.S. airstrike killed eight people in the North Waziristan tribal region last Saturday. Pakistan says it does not allow U.S. forces to cross the border in pursuit of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. The war on terror is opposed by many in this Islamic nation of 150 million people.
Al-Zawahri, who has a $25 million dollar U.S. bounty on his head, has appeared regularly over the Internet and in Arab media, encouraging Muslims to attack Americans and U.S. interests worldwide.
Like bin Laden, his whereabouts had been unknown since the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began following the terror attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people.