Pakistani leaders on Thursday disavowed any knowledge of a missile strike in a volatile border area where the United States has previously targeted Al Qaeda figures -- the first attack of its kind since the new government took office six weeks ago.
The strike late Wednesday in the Bajur tribal region raised concerns in Pakistan that the Bush administration might be seeking to hunt down senior Al Qaeda figures while the Pakistani leadership that took office in late March tries to negotiate a truce with militants in the tribal areas.
Such an accord could complicate the staging of strikes in Pakistani territory, which were previously carried out with the tacit consent of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf's party was resoundingly defeated in February parliamentary elections, and although he remains in office, his powers have been curtailed by his victorious opponents, who have expressed qualms about such actions on Pakistani soil.
American military officials in Afghanistan said they had no information about the strike on a compound in the village of Damadola, a known militant stronghold near the border with Afghanistan. The wrecked compound is near the site of an attack in 2006 that was aimed at Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, who escaped.
Residents said that just before this week's attack, they saw and heard what they believed was a pilotless aircraft in the area. American strikes against militants sheltering in Pakistan's tribal areas are often carried out using Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles.
A Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident, said it was believed that a mid-level Al Qaeda official might have been killed in the strike. Local officials said at least seven people died, but the area was sealed off to outsiders, and independent confirmation of their identities was not possible. Some reports put the death toll as high as 18, including some civilians.
News agencies reported that Faqir Mohammed, a cleric linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, vowed vengeance for the strike. "This is jihad for us," the Associated Press quoted him as declaring Thursday after funerals for some of those killed in the attack.
However, another Taliban spokesman who goes by the name of Maulana Omar said the strike would not lead to a cutoff of negotiations with the Pakistani government, which have been going on for several weeks.
Thousands of protesters, called into the streets by clerics, rallied in Damadola and the region's main town, Khar, chanting anti-American slogans.
In Islamabad, the capital, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that he had no knowledge of a missile strike and that the cause of the compound's destruction was under investigation. The spokesman, Mohammed Sadiq, said that if Pakistan's sovereignty were found to have been violated, the government would protest.
The new government coalition, however, is still struggling to find its footing. Already, it is seriously divided over whether to reinstate judges, including the popular chief justice, who were fired by Musharraf last year. Government ministers affiliated with the junior party in the coalition, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, submitted their resignations in protest after the government missed a self-imposed deadline to pass a resolution reinstating the judges.
The U.S.-backed fight against militants in the tribal areas is an unpopular one with many Pakistanis. Musharraf had sufficient muscle to brush aside protests, but the new government is much more fragile.
The senior partner in the government, the Pakistan People's Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is seen as more likely to condone continued U.S. strikes against militants. But the PML-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has taken a harder line.
Sharif's party swiftly accused "external forces" of taking advantage of the current rift in the government to carry out an unauthorized attack. It did not specifically name the United States.
If the new government has decided to condone targeted strikes, it would be extremely difficult politically for any Pakistani official to acknowledge that. Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani told TV station ARY that if the United States had carried out Wednesday's missile attack, "we condemn it."
Even under Musharraf, however, such strikes were almost never openly acknowledged by U.S. and Pakistani officials. At least four such strikes took place in the months before the new government took office, including one in late January that killed a senior Al Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al Libi.