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Monday, October 30, 2006

Pakistan destroys al Qaeda school

KHAR, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistani troops backed by missile-firing helicopters destroyed an al-Qaida-linked training facility in a northwestern tribal area near the Afghan border Monday, killing "many" militants, officials said

The pre-dawn attack targeted a religious school -- known as a madrassa -- holding 70-80 militants in Chingai village near the town of Khar, the main town in the Bajur tribal district, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

Sultan said the facility was destroyed but that it was not immediately clear how many people had been killed. There were no civilian casualties as there were no other buildings near the madrassa, he claimed.

The attack came two days after 5,000 pro-Taliban tribesmen held an anti-American rally in the Bajur area near Damadola, a village close to the site of an alleged U.S. missile attack that killed several al-Qaida members and civilians in January.

"We received confirmed intelligence reports that 70-80 militants were hiding in a madrassa used as a terrorist-training facility, which was destroyed by an army strike, led by helicopters," Sultan said.

Soldiers on the ground were counting the dead, Sultan said. He was unable to provide a preliminary estimate of the casualty count, but said that "many" militants had been killed.

At least three men from the madrassa were brought to the main hospital in Khar in critical conditions, said a doctor at the hospital, Imran Khan.

An Associated Press reporter living in the area said he saw several helicopters hovering near his house early Monday before hearing a series of explosions, apparently caused by missiles being fired into the madrassa compound.

Helicopters fired four to five missiles into the madrassa, which was run by Liaquat Hussain, a local Islamic cleric who is believed to have been sheltering al-Qaida militants, Sultan said.

A senior intelligence official in Bajur also said a local al-Qaida leader, Faqir Mohammed, who led Saturday's rally was believed to have been inside the madrassa that was targeted.

It was unclear if Mohammed was among those killed, said the official, who declined to be identified further because he was unauthorized to speak to the media.

Pakistan has been trying to defeat militants along its porous border with Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2001 fanned increased terrorist activity on the Pakistan side of the frontier.

Pakistan became a key U.S. ally in its war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., and has deployed about 80,000 soldiers to flush out Taliban and al-Qaida members hiding in the mountainous frontier tribal region.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

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