Protests in Pakistan after deadly madrasa airstrike

Thousands of tribesmen chanting “Death to America” rallied against the Pakistani and United States governments on Tuesday ahead of nationwide protests over a raid on an Islamic school that killed 80 people.

Pakistan launched its deadliest airstrike to date on Monday against a madrasa in the troubled Bajaur tribal region bordering Afghanistan, saying it doubled as an al-Qaeda-linked militant training camp.

But Islamists insist the dead were students and more than 5 000 bearded tribesmen wearing turbans protested on Tuesday in Khar, the main town in the rugged region to condemn the pre-dawn attack.

The tribesmen recited religious poetry and shouted “Death to Bush” and “Death to Musharraf”, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is a key ally in US leader George Bush’s “war on terror”.

Authorities closed all entry routes to the mountain-fringed town to prevent outsiders from coming into Bajaur and to keep law and order, a local administration official said.

Islamist leaders accused the United States of either ordering the strike on the madrasa, which Pakistan says was launched by its own helicopter gunships, or of actually carrying out the raid using Predator drones.

“It was the Americans who fired a missile on the madrasa and later Pakistani helicopters came to take the responsibility for the Americans’ act,” Islamic fundamentalist parliamentarian Haroon Rashid said in Khar.

“I live just one kilometre away from the madrasa and witnessed everything,” added Rashid, who said he had resigned from politics in protest.

Pakistan’s biggest coalition of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA—United Action Front) has also called protests in several cities.

MMA chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed was travelling to Khar in a convoy to offer his condolences, a spokesperson for the coalition said in the north-western city of Peshawar, but government sources said he would likely be denied entry.

In the conservative north-western city of Peshawar, schools and offices were open and public transport was operating but Islamists prepared to hold a peaceful protest in the city centre later in the day.

Extra security had already been deployed in Peshawar due to a planned visit on Tuesday by Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, which was cancelled on security fears following the airstrike.

In Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, police stepped up security around the US consulate, closing a main road leading to the building following a protest on Monday when bearded Islamists burned a US flag.

Pakistan’s military said the raid killed around 80 militants, including some foreigners and a local Taliban commander, Maulvi Liaqat, who ran the Islamic madrasa.

Around four missiles were fired at the concrete-walled compound, reducing much of it to rubble. Dozens of mangled bodies covered in sheets were laid out on makeshift beds afterwards for funeral prayers.

Liaqat was an associate of al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who in January escaped a similar air strike at Damadola, about two kilometres away from the site of Monday’s attack, security sources said.

The madrasa was being used as a training centre to send hardcore Islamic fighters across the border into Afghanistan to attack Nato soldiers, they added.

Musharraf recently approved a peace deal between insurgents in North Waziristan, another of Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous tribal areas, and there was speculation before Monday that a similar accord was planned for Bajaur.

The airstrike came two days after thousands of pro-militant tribesmen gathered in Bajaur and chanted their support for al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Pakistan has spent the last five years battling al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, who sought sanctuary in the tribal areas after fleeing Afghanistan following the US-led ousting of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

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