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Thousands hold anti-US protests in Pakistan over attack

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Thousands of protesters took to the streets yesterday, chanting ''Death to America" and calling for holy war as outrage persisted over an airstrike that heavily damaged a remote border village.

Pakistani authorities suspect Al Qaeda operatives had gathered last week at Damadola to plan attacks early this year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the meeting was torn apart by US missiles, an intelligence official said.

President General Pervez Musharraf is a key US ally in the war on terror, but many in the Islamic country resent those ties. Feelings intensified after the deaths of 13 villagers in the US attack on Jan. 13.

Officials believe at least four foreign militants also may have died, including an Al Qaeda explosives and chemical weapons specialist and a son-in-law of the terror network's number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, an opposition Islamic coalition, has organized anti-American protests across the country, the latest held yesterday.

The largest was held in Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province, where Damadola is located.

Several thousand people marched from two mosques, chanting ''jihad [holy war] is our way" and burning effigies of President Bush. Smaller demonstrations were staged in Lahore and the volatile border town of Wana. No violence was reported.

''Are you ready for jihad against America?" Dost Mohammed, a coalition party leader, asked the gathering in Peshawar.

Hundreds of protesters, most wearing white prayer caps, raised their hands.

''We will keep fighting jihad with our pens and our voices. If there is need, we will fight with other means," Shahid Shamsi, a spokesman for the religious alliance, said when asked if it was advocating armed struggle.

''Our mujahideen have fought against the Russians in Afghanistan and in Kashmir. We will fight if an aggressor occupies us," he said.

None of the speakers at the Peshawar rally referred to the audiotape message released Thursday by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who said he was planning more attacks in the United States but also called for an undefined truce.

Pakistani lawyers, meanwhile, held separate protests in various cities. In the capital, Islamabad, about 100 lawyers protested in front of the Supreme Court, chanting ''death to America" and ''death to Musharraf."

''It seems the country has no sovereignty," said Abdur Rahman Ansari, deputy chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council. ''The rulers have become like slaves."

Radical Islamic groups oppose Musharraf for supporting Washington in the fight against terrorism, including the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban for harboring bin Laden and his terror network.

As the domestic backlash over the missile strike continued, Pakistani authorities said they were still investigating the identities and fates of those meeting at Damadola. A senior Pakistani intelligence official said the Al Qaeda figures had gathered to discuss ''new attacks" in the coming months. The targets were believed to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to journalists, refused to discuss how security agencies had learned of the purported attack plans.

Four or five Al Qaeda militants are believed to have died in the missile strike, including Al Qaeda leaders of attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.

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