KHAAR (Bajaur), Oct 30: Eighty-two people were killed, 12 teenagers among them, in an air strike at a religious seminary in Damadola in the Bajaur tribal region on Monday morning.
Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan, said those killed in the dawn attack were all militants and denied that there had been any collateral damage.
The operation, he said, was launched following intelligence reports that the seminary was being used as a training facility for terrorist activities.
But local residents believe the air strike was carried out by fixed-wing US drones which fired hellfire missiles at the compound, killing all those inside the seminary, including its administrator Maulvi Liaqat Ali.
“Pakistani helicopters arrived 20 minutes later and fired rockets at the hillside,” one resident said.
However, the military spokesman denied US involvement in the attack.
“The operation was launched after confirmed intelligence reports that a number of miscreants were getting terrorist training in a madressah,” Maj-Gen Sultan told a news briefing in Islamabad.
He said that the operation was conducted only by the Pakistan Army, after issuing a warning to the militants and keeping the madressah under watch for a few days.
He reiterated that Pakistan would not allow anyone to use its soil for terrorist activity.
No journalist was allowed entry into Bajaur and passengers entering the tribal region were asked to identify themselves.
Surprisingly, the strike on Damadola, the second since January, came the day the government was expected to sign a peace agreement with militants in Bajaur replicating the September 5 truce reached with militants in North Waziristan.
The peace agreement, had it been signed, would have resulted in the grant of a pardon to the two most wanted militants, Maulana Faqir Mohammad and Maulvi Liaqat. Both had been charged with harbouring and providing shelter to Al Qaeda operatives.
Locals in Chenagai, a small hamlet in Damadola, a village some 13km northeast of the regional headquarters, Khaar, said two loud explosions had woken them up at around 5am.
One missile hit the compound while the other landed in a nearby stream, they said. The seminary was completely flattened. That was followed by a third strike from a second drone, they said.
About 15 minutes later, they said, three helicopter gunships of the Pakistan Army arrived and fired a few rockets that slammed into nearby hills.
“Spy planes (drones) have been flying over the area for the last few days,” Akhunzada, a local resident said.
“There were two big explosions. They were so powerful that they shook the earth and rattled our doors and windows,” Sahibzada Haroon Rashid, the Jamaat-i-Islami member in the lower house of parliament, who lives barely a kilometre away from the bombed-out seminary, told Dawn on telephone from Khaar.
He said the helicopters arrived at the scene a good 15 minutes later, firing a few rockets before flying back.
“Those were small thuds — nothing in comparison to the big explosions that preceded them minutes earlier,” he said.
Like many other residents, Sahibzada Haroon is convinced the seminary was bombed by US drones and Pakistan owned the air strikes up to cover up the whole incident and avoid embarrassment.
“Absolutely. I have no doubt in my mind that it was done by the Americans and we are now making a futile attempt to cover it up,” he said.
Local residents rushed to the scene of the bombing and pulled out the dead. Few bodies were found to be unharmed as locals collected mutilated body parts from under the single-storey building that was the headquarters of the defunct Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi.
Locals admitted that it also served as a meeting-point for militants waging ‘jihad’ against the US-led Nato forces in the neighbouring eastern Afghan province of Kunar.
Apparently only three of the 83 struck by the air raid had survived with wounds. Two of them died later at a local hospital, taking the total death toll to 82. However, only 55 of those killed could be accounted for; the remaining victims were said to have perished in the deadly bombing.
Forty of those killed were buried in a nearby graveyard while 15 bodies were sent to their respective villages. While most of those killed were said to be young men in their twenties, 12 of them were said to be children in their early teens.
There was no ‘high-value target’ or any foreign militant among those killed, local residents and government officials said.
Fugitive cleric Maulana Faqir Mohammad and his deputy Maulvi Liaqat Ali had escaped the US missile attack in the Damadola village in January this year that had left 18 civilians, mostly women and children, dead.
The January bombing and the death of innocent civilians had triggered public backlash, forcing the government to lodge a protest with the United States. The US later said the strike had been aimed at killing Al Qaeda No 2, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was expected to turn up there for a dinner meeting.
Shops and markets were closed in the entire Bajaur region as news of the latest bombing spread. Thousands of angry Bajauris turned up at the first funeral of about 20 victims at 9am.
Maulana Faqir Mohammad, in his emotional speech, vowed to continue ‘jihad’ against the US and alleged that the bombing was an attempt to wreck peace in the tribal region. He announced that a black day would be observed on Tuesday and asked his followers to vent their anger in a peaceful manner.
Senior NWFP Minister Sirajul Haq also rushed to Bajaur and announced quitting his office in the MMA government in the NWFP. But, much to his embarrassment, his party chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, and Chief Minister Akram Durrani made it clear later the move had been on the anvil for some time and was not linked to the bombing.