DATTA KHEL, Pakistan (AFP) -Human Rights Watch called on Pakistan Wednesday to allow an independent investigation into a suspected missile strike that killed at least 30 alleged Al-Qaeda militants.
A massive blast on Tuesday destroyed a madrassa in the volatile North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan, which officials said was being used as a militant training camp and bomb factory.
A senior intelligence official and residents said up to three missiles fired from Afghanistan where US-led troops are active hit the building, although the Pakistani army said the blast was caused by explosives at the site.
Some residents said local children may have been among the dead.
“The Pakistani government should immediately allow independent investigators and journalists access…. to ascertain exactly who and how many have died, at whose hands and under what circumstances,” HRW South Asia researcher Ali Dayan Hasan said in a statement.
“Once again, there are allegations of a US strike and of children dying in that strike. Once again Pakistan is denying US involvement or Pakistani responsibility for the attack,” Hasan said.
A mullah in Datta Khel district, which is several kilometres (miles) from the remote and heavily forested blast site, put the death toll at 34 and said the victims had been buried locally.
“Three missiles from across the border landed at around 10:30 am yesterday,” Khan Wali Khan, who runs another local madrassa, told AFP. “The dead were local people. Most of the bodies were torn to pieces.”
Pakistan army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said the incident was caused by the explosion of bombs stored at the compound and denied the involvement of Pakistani or US forces.
“Around 30 people were killed in the blast. Ten to 15 are foreign nationals. They had assembled there and were in the compound, using it as a training compound,” Arshad told AFP.
He said there were Arab and Turkmen militants among the dead but there was “no report that any high-value target was in there,” he said.
The US-led coalition in Afghanistan also denied any involvement.
Intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity that the dead men were militants from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda movement, blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Hundreds of foreign Al-Qaeda militants fled into Pakistan’s tribal belt after US-led forces ousted the Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan for harbouring Bin Laden and his allies.
The issue of possible US missile strikes is sensitive because Pakistan refuses to allow foreign troops to conduct military operations on its soil.
Some 80 people died in a raid on another tribal madrassa in October.
Al-Qaeda’s Egyptian deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was said to have escaped a US missile attack in the area in January 2006. Four other militants and more than a dozen civilians were killed.
In December 2005, Egyptian Al-Qaeda explosives specialist Hamza Rabia was killed in a blast in North Waziristan. Residents again said it was a missile strike but the military insisted he was killed by one of his own bombs.