WASHINGTON -- Pakistani authorities yesterday angrily condemned what they called an unauthorized US attack on a border village and said the strike apparently had missed its intended target, Osama Bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
The attack early Friday in the semiautonomous tribal region near Afghanistan killed at least 18 people, and the authorities said the victims were mostly women and children.
The strike caused a diplomatic firestorm that threatened to strain cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, a key ally of Washington in the war on terrorism. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry asked the US ambassador in Islamabad to explain the action and announced that it would bring up the attack at the tripartite commission meeting in February between the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
''Whatever intelligence it was, it was faulty," Tasnim Aslam, a spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview yesterday. ''Probably it was done on the basis of some information that there were foreign militants in the area. But this information could have been shared with our armed forces, and they could have taken action without killing so many innocent civilians."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense said she could not comment on the attack. A State Department spokesman said that Washington had not yet been briefed by the US Embassy in Pakistan.
Near the scene of the attack, thousands of tribesmen chanted slogans against the American and Pakistani governments. A mob set fire to a US-funded aid organization.
Exactly how the US attack was carried out and who died remained unclear yesterday. Witnesses and news reports citing unidentified US and Pakistani officials suggested that an unmanned Predator drone aircraft fired missiles at three houses, but Aslam and General Shaukat Sultan, a spokesman for the armed forces, said the explosions came from rockets fired across the Afghan border, not planes.
Sultan denied reports that bodies of nearly a dozen militants had been quickly removed from the scene for DNA testing, calling it ''a rumor." The Associated Press reported yesterday that the FBI expected to perform forensic tests on the victims.
On Friday night, NBC quoted US intelligence sources as saying that the attack may have killed Zawahri, a former eye surgeon who has become the public face of Al Qaeda by issuing video statements and proclamations on behalf of the group.
The bombing promises to further harm relations between the government and the tribal people who live along the Afghan border and who have been accused of harboring bin Laden and his network.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, Pakistan's military government rarely interfered with the fiercely independent tribal areas. It also shared the tribes' support and links of kinship with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
But after the terrorist attacks, President Pervez Musharraf switched allegiances and became a crucial US ally in the war against Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders were given haven by the Taliban.
Since then, the CIA and US special forces have worked closely with Pakistan to capture several high-profile Qaeda figures who had fled to Pakistan. But US officials suspect that some Pakistani intelligence officers remain loyal to their former allies.
In 2004, Pakistani forces surrounded a compound in the tribal area, announcing that Zawahri's capture was imminent, but he was never found.
''We don't ask in advance [to attack high-level targets], because we suspect there are still links," said Michael Krepon, a specialist on South Asia who cofounded the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on international security. ''You just never know if word will filter down to the people we're attacking."
Krepon said that the United States has violated Pakistani airspace ''on rare occasions, when the US government believes that senior Al Qaeda officials are vulnerable."
Still, he said he believed that the US government must have cleared the action with senior Pakistani officials because an ''attack of this sort would have significant negative consequences for US-Pakistani relations."
Yesterday, Musharraf gave a more muted statement than the Foreign Ministry, telling reporters, ''We are looking into it, who did it -- people from outside have come."
Pakistani authorities said that they frequently ask US forces for technical support and backup to hunt Al Qaeda, but that the US government does not have the right to act independently on Pakistani soil.
A senior Pakistani official who has had access to intelligence matters said that US forces occasionally had fired rockets across the Afghan border to target suspected terrorists, but that those attacks had been far less damaging. He said that the Americans were always quick to express their regrets. He also said that Friday's attack was more destructive and went deeper into Pakistani territory than any previous incident.
''They have never undertaken any operation like the one that is believed to have taken place," he said in a telephone interview from Islamabad. ''This case it much more serious."
On Monday, the Foreign Ministry lodged a separate complaint with US military in Afghanistan after an attack last Saturday killed eight people in Northern Waziristan.
''This is the second incident in about 10 days time," Aslam said. ''It remains our responsibility to protect our people from outside intrusion. . . .These women, these children, they are important. They are our people."
Friday's attack hit three houses at about 2:40 a.m. in the village of Damadola, in the area of Bajaur, about 125 miles northwest of Islamabad. At least five women and five children died, according Sultan, the military spokesman.
The New York Times reported on its website yesterday that the death toll may have been higher. Citing an unidentified Pakistani officials, the Times reported that seven of the victims were Arab fighters, and four more were Pakistani militants.
A tribesman named Zaman was quoted by the AP as saying that he had noticed planes flying over the area for days and night, he heard a plane and then eight explosions.
''I ran out and saw planes were dropping bombs," said Zaman, 40, who lost two sons and a daughter. ''I saw my home being hit."
Sultan, who spoke in a telephone interview from Islamabad, said that a ''few foreigners had been in the area" but that he did not know if they had been in the compound when the attack took place, or if they had been killed.