DAMADOLA, Pakistan -- An airstrike in a remote Pakistani tribal area yesterday killed at least 17 people, and a senior Pakistani official said the target was a suspected Al Qaeda hideout that may have been frequented by high-level operatives, possibly the number two leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Citing unnamed US intelligence officials, US networks reported that it was a CIA strike and that Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, could have been at the compound in the Bajur area or about to arrive.
There was no confirmation from either the Pakistani or US government, but a senior Pakistani government official told the Associated Press that ''there is 50-50 chance that some Al Qaeda personality was at the home" that was hit.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that he had heard that the Al Qaeda figure may have been Zawahri and that the information would be clearer later today.
Pakistani intelligence officials said an unmanned US Predator drone attacked a compound known to be frequented by high-level Al Qaeda operatives. Zawahri was thought to have used safe houses in the area last winter and again in the past several weeks, according to ABC News, which first reported that Zawahri was the intended target last night.
Pakistani officials were at the scene of the strike, trying to determine whether Zawahiri was killed, CNN reported. US officials in Washington did not comment on the reports.
Zawahri, an Egyptian-born physician, and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, have eluded capture since US-led forces toppled Afghanistan's Taliban government in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks.
While bin Laden has not been publicly heard from in more than a year, Zawahri has become an increasingly prolific and vocal spokesman for Al Qaeda followers worldwide. In videotaped remarks earlier this month, Zawahri said President Bush had admitted defeat in Iraq by announcing plans to reduce troops there, saying the move would be a victory for Islam.
Meanwhile, in this hillside hamlet about four miles inside northwestern Pakistan, weeping villagers dug through the rubble of homes destroyed in the predawn air strike. Residents of Damadola recounted hearing aircraft flying overhead before bombs or missiles crashed through the Pashtun tribal village blasts that were felt miles away.
An Associated Press reporter who traveled to Damadola, about 125 miles northwest of Islamabad, counted at least 15 fresh graves of victims, buried quickly according to Islamic custom. Villagers said more than 30 people had died and others were wounded.
Mohammed Karim, a doctor from a hospital in the main town of Bajur the tribal region where Damadola is located said 17 or 18 people were killed and two others were treated for their wounds.
Three houses, hundreds of yards apart, were destroyed, with wreckage 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.