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Attack strains Pakistan-U.S. ties

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A Pakistani shouts anti-American slogans during a rally to condemn the missile attack that killed at least 17 people on Friday. The sign at the back reads, "Stop U.S. flights."

A Pakistani shouts anti-American slogans during a rally to condemn the missile attack that killed at least 17 people on Friday. The sign at the back reads, “Stop U.S. flights.”

Mohammad Zubair, Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani provincial authorities said Tuesday four or five foreign terrorists were killed in the purported U.S. missile strike that has severely strained relations with this Muslim nation, a key ally in President Bush's war on terror.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, on the eve of a trip to Washington, said that despite the importance of ties with the United States, attacks inside Pakistan "cannot be condoned."

"Pakistan has committed to fighting terrorism, but naturally we cannot accept any action within our country which results in what happened over the weekend," Aziz said, referring to the missile strike Friday in the border village of Damadola.

Eighteen residents, including women and children, were also killed in the strike, the provincial government said Tuesday.

Pakistani intelligence officials have said the target of the attack was al-Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, who they said was invited to a dinner celebrating an Islamic holiday in the village but sent aides instead.

U.S. counterterrorism officials, however, have not ruled out that Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant was killed.

In the first official confirmation by Pakistani authorities that militants were killed, the administration of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan said in a statement that the four or five bodies of "foreign terrorists" were taken away "by their companions."

As a result, a Pakistani intelligence official said, authorities do not know the nationalities of the foreigners killed. The provincial authorities' statement did not identify the dead militants, who it said were among 10 to 12 extremists at the dinner.

But a counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, said several of those killed were believed to be Egyptian. Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian, has appeared regularly over the Internet and in Arab media to encourage Muslims to attack Americans and U.S. interests worldwide.

There have been conflicting accounts from Pakistani officials and witnesses over who, if anyone, claimed bodies from the scene of the missile strike, which destroyed three houses.

Damadola residents say all the victims were local residents and that they buried them all. One Pakistani official told The Associated Press on Saturday that bodies had been taken away for DNA tests, although it was not clear by whom.

The statement by the provincial authorities, citing the chief official in the Bajur region where the Damadola is located, said its findings were from a report compiled by a "joint investigation team" but gave no specifics on who was on the team.

Pakistani intelligence officials have described the strike as a CIA attack, probably carried out by missiles from a drone aircraft. But neither the Pakistani nor the U.S. government has provided details.

At the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman Larry Di Rita declined to comment on any aspect of the attack, including whether there was any U.S. military involvement.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan also refused to discuss the strike, but said the U.S. would keep pursuing al-Qaida leaders.

"There are leaders that we continue to pursue and we will bring them to justice. The American people expect us to do so, and that's what this president is committed to doing," he said.

A U.S counterterrorism official said Monday that a compound hit in the attack had been visited in the past by significant terrorist figures and there were "strong indications that was happening again."

Despite the statement by the Pakistani provincial authorities, the country's interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, would say Tuesday only that there was a "possibility" foreigners were killed. He told the AP the government had "no information" about the presence of al-Zawahri.

The attack has become an embarrassment for Islamabad, a staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Many in this nation of 150 million people oppose the government's support for the United States in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets over the weekend, chanting "Death to America" and calling for the resignation of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Frustration has been growing over a series of suspected U.S. attacks aimed at militants along the porous frontier. The United States has 20,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, but Pakistan says it does not allow them to hunt down or attack militants across the border.

Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri told Parliament the attack could hurt Pakistan's support for the war on terror.

The government says it has arrested about 700 al-Qaida suspects in the past four years, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.

"Pakistan is impressing upon the United States and the European Community that incidents like (the missile strike) on Bajur would adversely impact the ongoing cooperation in the war against terror," Kasuri told lawmakers.

He also said the strike would "neutralize the goodwill" earned by the United States in its support of relief efforts for Pakistani regions devastated by an earthquake in October that killed more than 80,000 people.

Former President George H.W. Bush — who is touring Pakistan as a U.N. envoy for the quake relief effort — declined to comment about the airstrike.

"I'm here as a representative of (Secretary-General Kofi Annan), so I leave that to someone else to comment. The feeling is that the U.S. is trying to help the people of Pakistan, and I hope that is what prevails," Bush said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

In Parliament, hardline lawmakers urged Aziz to cancel his visit to Washington this week for talks on security and investment and a meeting with President Bush. Aziz said the trip would go ahead.