(New York) - Pakistan’s government must allow an independent investigation into the aerial bombing of a religious school in Bajaur Agency, in the country’s tribal areas, Human Rights Watch said today.
The October 30 attack in the town of Khar killed 82 people, including several children, though a military spokesman claimed the dead were all militants and denied any “collateral damage.”
Pakistani authorities said that the seminary was being used as a training camp for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, and that they issued a warning before striking. However, local residents said that only students were present in the seminary and that they received no warning. They also said the strike was carried out by fixed-wing US drones, which fired hellfire missiles as locals gathered to offer the dawn Fajr prayer.
“The Pakistani government should allow independent investigators into the area to determine who carried out the attack, how it was planned and executed, and who was killed,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The onus is on the Pakistani government to provide a credible account of the legitimacy of the attack resulting in the deaths of so many.”
ABC News, an American television network, reported that Pakistani intelligence officials said that the United States carried out the attack. However, both American and Pakistani authorities denied the report. Pakistan’s military spokesperson, General Shaukat Sultan, also initially said that the attack was carried out on the basis of US military intelligence, but later retracted his statement. A US military spokesman in Kabul denied any US involvement in the attack.
On October 31, Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, claimed that the military had the school under surveillance for several days before the strike, and that it had confirmed that militants were receiving training there. “They were all militants using weapons doing military training within the compound … anyone who says that these people were innocent taliban (religious students) is telling lies,” Musharraf said.
The attack is just the latest in a series of deadly counterterrorism operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. In January 2006, a US Predator drone fired a missile targeting al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman-Al-Zawahri in Damadola, also in Bajaur Agency. The strike missed al-Zawahri, but killed several other al-Qaeda members as well as civilians, sparking massive anti-US protests across Pakistan. The Pakistani military has been targeting suspected al-Qaeda training camps and Taliban groups in the tribal belt since March 2004. The Pakistan government insists that the operations are not part of an internal armed conflict but rather an ongoing “anti-terrorist operation” to support the civil administration.
Given the repeated assertions that most of those killed in Khar were civilians and not combatants or militants, the government of Pakistan must justify the legality of the attack, Human Rights Watch said. If it was a law enforcement operation, the scale of the deaths point to use of excessive force in the extreme, with no or little effort to minimize loss of life. If it was a full-scale military operation, it raises real concerns about the proportionality of the attack and whether the attack was indiscriminate.
“If the government fails to provide a credible account of what happened, it will undermine legitimate anti-terrorist efforts” said Hasan. “Pakistan should allow investigators and journalists into the area to determine exactly what happened.”