Associated Press Writer
DAMADOLA, Pakistan -- An airstrike in a remote Pakistani tribal area killed at least 17 people on Friday, and a senior Pakistani official said the target was a suspected al-Qaida hideout that may have been frequented by high-level operatives, possibly the No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Citing unnamed American intelligence officials, U.S. networks reported that it was a CIA strike and that al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, could have been at a targeted compound in the Bajur area or about to arrive.
There was no confirmation from either the Pakistani or U.S. government, but a senior Pakistani government official said that "there is 50-50 chance that some al-Qaida personality was at the home" that was hit in the border village of Damadola, about 125 miles northwest of the capital Islamabad.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that he had heard that the al-Qaida figure may have been al-Zawahri and that the information would be clearer later today.
In Pakistan, the military only confirmed to The Associated Press that there had been explosions in a remote village near the Afghan border, but could not confirm the cause or casualties. The spokesman for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said the incident was still being investigated.
"I am not in a position to say yes or no. We know that media is reporting it, but we have no such information, or any details. We are still investigating this matter," Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said.
In Washington, Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and intelligence officials all said they had no information on the reports concerning al-Zawahri.
An AP reporter who visited the scene about 12 hours after what villagers said was an airstrike saw three destroyed houses, hundreds of yards apart. Villagers, who denied links to the Taliban or al-Qaida militants, had buried at least 15 people, including women and children, and were digging for more bodies in the rubble. There were no security forces in the area.
U.S. and Pakistani officials told NBC news that U.S. predator drones fired as many as 10 missiles.
Doctors told The Associated Press that at least 17 people died in the attack before dawn on Friday -- the second deadly strike in a week near the Afghan border.
Sahibzada Haroon ur Rashid, a local lawmaker from a hard-line Islamic party, claimed it was a U.S. airstrike -- opposite a region of Afghanistan where Islamic militants are active. In Kabul, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Mike Cody said he had no reports on Friday's attack.
Residents of Damadola, a hillside hamlet about four miles inside northwestern Pakistan, said they heard aircraft overhead before bombs or missiles crashed through the Pashtun tribal village -- blasts that were felt miles away.
The wreckage of the three houses destroyed was scattered in craters some 10 feet deep. Five women were weeping nearby, cursing the attackers. Dozens of others gathered to express condolences.
"My entire family was killed, and I don't know whom should I blame for it," said Sami Ullah, a 17-year old student, as he shifted debris from his ruined home with a hoe. "I only seek justice from God."
He said 24 of his family members were killed -- among them his parents, four brothers, three sisters-in-law, three sisters and five nephews. He said his father, Bakht Pur, had been a laborer.
Digging through the cement rubble of his home, Shah Zaman, who lost two sons and a daughter, recounted hearing planes at about 2:40 a.m.
"I ran out and saw planes were dropping bombs," said Zaman, 40. "I saw my home being hit."
"I don't know who carried out this attack and why. We were needlessly attacked. We are law-abiding people. I think we were targeted wrongly," he said.
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. Militant groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban are believed to be active in the border area, but Bajur itself is rarely troubled by violence.
In early 2004 during a major Pakistani counterterrorism operation in neighboring South Waziristan, Pakistani officials said on condition of anonymity that al-Zawahri was believed to be hiding in the area, but the reports were never substantiated.
Al-Zawahri 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.
But he has continued to spread his message, including in a videotape broadcast Jan. 6 that said the United States' decision to withdraw some troops from Iraq represented "the victory of Islam."
In September, al-Zawahri said his terror network that was responsible for the bombings in July that killed 52 people on London's transit system.