A religious school destroyed in an army air raid in Bajaur tribal area was frequented by Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri who used it to train suicide bombers, Pakistani officials have said.
The facility, known as Maulvi Liaquat's madrassa, was used for imparting training to new recruits with second and third-tier leadership of Al-Qaeda, by al-Zawahiri and his associates Abu Obaida al-Misri and Abu Farrah Libbi, top security officials told a briefing on Tuesday.
They displayed to media stills and videos of the early morning training sessions at the destroyed seminary with participants from Swat, Dir, Bajaur and even Afghanistan.
The photos taken through infrared camera showed people aged between 20 to 30 carrying out exercises with no weapons.
"No weapon or arms were shown as being used for training, as tactics of terrorists have been changed and they prepare suicide bombers," local daily The News today quoted a Pakistani official as saying.
The facility was frequently visited by al-Zawahiri, Libbi, al-Misri and others to prepare a new lot of foot soldiers as Al-Qaeda is reportedly running short of them.
Some leaders of the area had already announced they have groomed around 20 suicide bombers even though they were involved in efforts to strike a peace deal with the government to show "their other face," the official said.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf yesterday said all 80 people killed in the airstrike in the northwestern tribal area were militants who received military training at the seminary.
Musharraf's assertion came as thousands of tribesmen rallied at Khar in Bajaur region on Tuesday to protest the airstrike, terming it a massacre of innocents.
An American news channel earlier reported that al-Zawahiri was the likely target of the raid but Pakistan's military spokesman General Shaukat Sultan denied the reports. Officials said Zawahiri was not in the madrassa at the time of the raid, though he had visited it in the past.
The officials claimed some of those seen in the photos undergoing physical training were to be sent to their targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan within a day or two.
"We continued to monitor the site for several weeks and despite our efforts to stop it through approaching Maulvi Liaquat and Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, they carried out such activities unabated," the paper quoted an official as saying.
He said all other religious seminaries in that part and other areas were closed as students had finished their religious education by Ramzan-end and there was a break of around 15 to 20 days.
"This period was being used to train terrorists as this facility was located at an isolated place in Bajaur agency," he said.
He appeared to confirm that Pakistan army planned a peace deal with the locals in Bajaur after a similar pact with tribal elders in Waziristan but added, "The strike at the terrorist facility was essential from security point of view."
The official claimed the first person who arrived at the spot following the strikes was Maulvi Mohammad with 20 people and they surreptitiously took away materials and articles.
He said no one had come out in the open to claim the bodies. "The dead bodies were taken to Swat and other areas which proved they were of Jihadis and not of seminary students," the official added.
It is not yet fully established that the facility had any link with rockets found in Islamabad and Rawalpindi recently, though investigations are still underway, the official said.
He did not rule out retaliation by the terrorists and said security would be tightened to avert any sabotage activity in Pakistan.
A report in Pakistan's Daily Times meanwhile quoted eyewitnesses as saying that they saw a US Predator drone fire three missiles at the madrassa on Monday.
However, security officials maintained that no American or NATO plane or forces were involved in the operation.
Jamat-ud-Dawa, an organisation set up by Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafeez Sayeed has alleged that Musharraf owned the attack on the madrassa to "show his allegiance" to the US.
"Musharraf desperately needed an opportunity to prove his allegiance to the United States after the Waziristan peace deal and he got one by claiming responsibility for the Bajaur airstrikes," Inamullah, a district chief of JD said addressing people after the funeral prayers of those killed, Daily Times reported.