PRAGUE, October 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Angry Islamist youths in Pakistan took to the streets to protest on October 30 air strikes on a madrasah linked to Al-Qaeda in the Bajaur tribal region that killed scores of suspected militants.
The protesters belong to Islami Jamiat-e Taleba, a student faction of Pakistan's largest Islamic party, Jamat-e Islami. Carrying banners with anti-American messages, they chanted Islamic and antigovernment slogans.
"There is a lot of tension between the local population in that region and the Pakistani security authorities."
In the Bajaur tribal region itself, more than 10,000 people gathered on October 31 as protests continued for a second day in several towns across the region. Loudspeakers blared songs in the local-ethnic Pashto language urging people to wage holy war, or jihad.
Young Islamists shouted support for pro-Taliban commander Maulana Faqir Mohammad as he praised Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the renegade Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"May Allah protect Sheikh Osama [bin Laden]," he said. "May Allah protect Mullah Omar. I ask you: Are there any other such warriors on the face of the earth? Answer me honestly; can Muslims of the entire world on one side compare with Mullah Omar and Osama on the other?"
Pakistanis protesting today in Lahore against the madrasah air strike (epa)
There are concerns that the attack could fuel unrest in the same parts of Pakistan where there were violent protests earlier this year over European newspaper cartoons of Islamic Prophet Muhammad and over the killing of an ethnic-Baluch tribal chief in another military raid.
Blocking Off The Area
Scores of pro-government tribal police have been deployed in the Bajaur tribal region. They have been blocking roads with stones to prevent political activists and journalists from reaching the region's main town of Khar or the nearby village of Chingai where the attack occurred.
Many local lawmakers and regional cabinet ministers have resigned in protest of the attack.
At Khar, local Islamic cleric Maulana Roohul Amin said the 80 suspected militants killed by the air strikes were innocent "martyrs." He called for "revenge" against the United States and against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- saying any Pakistani who is a friend of America is "a traitor."
The region's leading pro-Taliban commander, Maulana Faqir Mohammad, rejects statements by Pakistani military officials who say they had confirmed information from the U.S. military that the madrasah was being used to train terrorists.
"There was not a single person older than 25 among those killed except for [the cleric at the madrasah,] Maulana Liaqatullah," he said. "They were all 25, 20, 17, 18 years old. The youngest was 15. The only person older than 25 was Maulana Liaqatullah who was 30 or 32 years old."
Meanwhile, Islamic leaders are calling for nationwide protests to condemn the air raid -- the deadliest-ever military operation launched against suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal regions.
Opinion On The Street Divided
But Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent political and defense analyst based in Lahore, tells RFE/RL that the mood in areas near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan does not represent the entire country.
"There is resentment all over Pakistan -- a kind of disappointment over the incident," he said. "However, the demonstrations are limited to certain areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and the tribal areas. In the rest of the country we don't really have a serious kind of agitation. Maybe a few protests here and there. But in the [Northwest] Frontier Province and the tribal areas, there is agitation."
Rizvi says the protests over the air strike have not attracted wide enough support to constitute a serious political threat against President Musharraf.
"It's not serious because until the mainstream political parties join this protest, this will not become a nationwide protest," he said. "But at the moment, it does not appear that the nationwide parties would join the Islamist parties. It is only the Islamist parties that are demonstrating."
However, Rizvi says the attack does threaten Musharraf's efforts to persuade deeply conservative tribal leaders to support his government instead of the pro-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters who enjoy strong support in the area.
"In the Bajaur agency, the military people and the local tribal chiefs were negotiating a peace agreement which was to go into effect in two or three days time," he said. "And suddenly, this attack by the army came in -- which means that the prospects of an agreement between the army and the local tribal chiefs has disappeared for the time being. When the tempers go down -- maybe in a week or two weeks time -- then there is a possibility that they may revive talks and try to go for an agreement. But for the time being there is a lot of tension between the local population in that region and the Pakistani security authorities."
The unrest caused Britain's Prince Charles, currently in Pakistan, to cancel a planned visit to Peshawar after Pakistani security officials said they could not guarantee his safety there amid protests by Islamists. Prince Charles had planned to visit a madrasah in Peshawar.