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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to Pakistan, where pro-Taliban tribesmen are threatening suicide attacks and other reprisals for Monday's air attack on a madrassa, or religious school, in a western province. Eighty people were reported killed in the attack. Thousands turned out for a protest yesterday with chants denouncing President Bush and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

We go now to journalist Ahmed Rashid in Lahore, Pakistan. And one of the dead, as we understand it, was the cleric who runs the school and has been accused of sheltering both local and foreign militants, including al-Qaida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, who was a frequent visitor to the madrassa, it's reported. Is that why this school was targeted?

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist, Pakistan): I think the school has probably been watched very closely by the Pakistanis and by the Americans because, don't forget, just across the border on the other side is Kunar province of Afghanistan, where the Americans have taken the heaviest casualties because al-Qaida is very strong there.

Now a lot of these Taliban/al-Qaida fighters have been crisscrossing the border coming in to Bajol(ph), resting, picking up more arms and ammunitions in mosques and madrassas like the one that was bombed, and then going back into Kunar.

MONTAGNE: There are two different versions of the story. One is that these were students; another is that they were militants. Is there any way to know?

Mr. RASHID: You know, the army, the military regime has closed off this whole (unintelligible) area for the last three years to human rights workers, to journalists, to anyone from outside. And there has never been independent confirmation of the claims and counterclaims made by the militants or by the local people and by the army.

And today is the classic case, you've got two completely opposite opinions, one given by the army and Musharraf saying there were militants and extremists there, and the other given by the local people.

It's just impossible to verify it. The military has closed all the roads leading into this agency. Journalists who tried to get in yesterday were barred. Political leaders who tried to reach the funeral of the dead victims were also barred.

MONTAGNE: And there are charges or allegations, which the U.S. had denied, that the U.S. military or some of its air power was involved in this attack.

Mr. RASHID: Well, the Pakistanis have been very adamant and quick in denying that, but of course we have known in the past that American planes have bombed inside Pakistani territory and it is possible that it could have happened this time. Or it could have been a joint operation. Because what we know from the local tribesman is that a drone were over the area for many days, obviously taking video pictures of the madrassa. Now the Pakistani don't have drones of that kind of capacity.

MONTAGNE: Might this attack have been part of pressure by the U.S. on Musharraf to do something about Taliban training centers on Pakistani territory?

Mr. RASHID: I think there's enormous pressure coming from, more than the Americans, perhaps right now more pressure coming from NATO. We should remember that NATO troops are now heavily engaged in southern Afghanistan and they're losing something like three-times the number of American troops killed this year in Afghanistan. And NATO intelligence, and of course American intelligence, very much points a finger to the Taliban leaders being in Pakistan.

Now, obviously, I think President Bush with what's going on in Iraq and other places does not want to publicly criticize Musharraf, even though he is perhaps, you know, a key ally in the Muslim world. But at the same time, I think there is growing pressure. I've learned from my sources, for example, that the NATO ambassadors in Brussels spent two days last week discussing Pakistan, and the question on the agenda was what to do about Pakistan.

So it is a very fraught issue right now. And clearly there's enormous pressure indirectly, but there's still pressure on the Pakistanis to do something more.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and the author of the book Taliban. He joined us from Lahore.

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