MONROVIA, Liberia, AP – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said al-Qaida can’t be treated lightly as anti-American protests raged in Pakistan following a purported U.S. attack on a village that may have harbored members of the terrorist network.
Rice offered no apologies for Friday’s airstrikes near the Afghanistan border and wouldn’t discuss details, including the fate of Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant.
“These are not people who can be dealt with lightly,” she said Sunday of al-Qaida while traveling to Liberia for Monday’s inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president.
Pakistani officials said the airstrikes killed at least 17 people, but not al-Zawahri, who they said was the intended target.
As Rice spoke Sunday, thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets for a second day to protest the airstrikes. They chanted “Death to America” and demanded U.S. troops leave neighboring Afghanistan.
“It’s obviously difficult at this time for the Pakistani government,” Rice said in the first remarks from a top Bush administration official following the airstrikes. “We’ll continue to work with the Pakistanis and we’ll try to address their concerns.”
Pakistani officials have strongly condemned the attack. It has fueled increasing anger in Pakistan, where many of the 150 million residents oppose the government’s involvement in the U.S.-led war against terror.
Pakistani intelligence officials have told The Associated Press that al-Zawahri was the reported target and had been invited to the village for a dinner marking an Islamic holiday on the night of the strike but he did not show up.
Rice praised the Pakistanis as “great allies” in the war against terrorism.
“I would just say to the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people, we are allies in the war on terror, that we’ve made a lot of progress by their cooperation in the war on terror. The biggest threat to Pakistan of course is what al-Qaida has done in trying to radicalize the country,” Rice said.
She said extremists continue to occupy parts of Pakistan and twice have attempted to assassinate President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The White House declined to comment on the attacks, except to praise Musharraf as well as Pakistan as “a valued ally on the war on terror.”
A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the information’s sensitivity, said it’s still unclear if al-Zawahri was killed in the attack.
Senators defended the airstrikes Sunday.
“We apologize, but I can’t tell you that we wouldn’t do the same thing again” in going after al-Zawahri, said Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz.
“We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al-Qaida, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately,” McCain, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Sen. Evan Bayh (news, bio, voting record), D-Ind., who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the CIA had been watching the area for several days and that the agency would not have conducted such an operation without extraordinarily high levels of intelligence.
“It’s a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?” Bayh told CNN’s “Late Edition.” “It’s like the wild, wild west out there. The Pakistani border is a real problem.”
Sen. Trent Lott (news, bio, voting record), R-Miss., another Intelligence Committee member, said such strikes are necessary to get at al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan who are directing anti-American violence in Iraq. “My information is that this strike was clearly justified by the intelligence,” Lott said.