World

U.S. tamps down claims of Pakistan role in Mumbai attack

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, anxious to defuse dangerous tensions after India charged that there was a Pakistani link to the Mumbai terrorist attack, said Monday that it had no indication of Pakistani government involvement.

At the same time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. expects Islamabad to pursue any leads that point to a Pakistani connection to the assault on India's financial capital that ended Saturday.

"What we are emphasizing to the Pakistani government is the need to follow the evidence wherever it leads," Rice said at a news conference in London. "I don't want to jump to any conclusions myself on this, but I do think that this is a time for complete, absolute, total transparency and cooperation, and that's what we expect."

Rice is cutting short a European trip later this week to visit India for talks on the crisis. The Bush administration also has ordered the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies to support the investigation into who was responsible for the attack, which killed at least 170 people, including six Americans.

The India-Pakistan frictions have jeopardized U.S. efforts to encourage the longtime rivals to improve relations. The U.S. wants Pakistan to feel confident enough to redeploy crack troops from its eastern border with India to fight al Qaida and allied Islamic extremists in the tribal area bordering Afghanistan.

India, which has been battling Pakistan-backed separatist groups in the disputed Kashmir region for years, has charged that unspecified "elements in Pakistan" were involved in the assault.

New Delhi's prime suspect is Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant group based in Pakistan that's been fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir. U.S. analysts say the group once enjoyed the backing of Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, but that support has diminished since 2002, when former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf banned the group.

India has based its allegation of a Pakistani link to the Mumbai attack in part on the interrogation of the only surviving gunman, identified by Indian officials as Ajmal Qasab, from the village of Faridkot, near the city of Multan, in the Pakistani province of Punjab.

However, inhabitants of the impoverished farming hamlet told a visiting McClatchy reporter on Monday that there was no such resident by that name or anyone who resembled the photographs taken of the alleged gunman as he fired at people in Mumbai's main railway terminal on Wednesday.

Leaders of Pakistan's civilian coalition government, elected in February, have denied any involvement in the Mumbai assault and pledged to support India's efforts to identify and track down those responsible.

Pakistan has demanded that India document its claim of a Pakistani link, and warned that it may have to shift troops fighting al Qaida and Pakistani extremists to the eastern border with India.

In a television interview on Monday, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, called the terrorists "non-state actors."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday the U.S. government, which sent an FBI team to Mumbai last week, has seen nothing to contradict Islamabad's denials of involvement.

"I've heard nothing that says the Pakistani government was involved," Perino said. "We have been encouraged by the statements by the Pakistanis that they are committed to following this wherever it leads. We would expect nothing less of them."

Some U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials have declined to rule out the possibility that sympathetic elements within the ISI or Pakistani military intelligence may have aided the terrorists, however.

They've also questioned whether Lashkar-e-Taiba was solely responsible, pointing out that the terrorists who assaulted Mumbai apparently sought out Americans and British citizens, something that the group hasn't done previously. These officials spoke anonymously because they weren't authorized to speak to the news media.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen — a reference to a region of southern India — claimed responsibility, but Indian officials and other experts don't think that such an organization exists.

India and Pakistan have fought three full-scale wars and frequent clashes along their border since they won independence from Britain in 1947.

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