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THE WORLD

Signs of Al Qaeda Presence Seen in Kashmir, U.S. Says

Asia: Rumsfeld, in visit, backs India's claim that terrorists are operating in the disputed region.

June 13, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — Al Qaeda fighters appear to have moved into the disputed region of Kashmir, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday, backing a key Indian allegation that terrorists operating in Pakistan remain a serious threat.

Rumsfeld, who is visiting India and then Pakistan in an effort to further ease military tensions, said there are signs that Al Qaeda terrorists are near the volatile cease-fire line that divides the two nations' areas in Kashmir.

"I have seen indications that there are in fact Al Qaeda operating in the area that we're talking about, near the Line of Control," Rumsfeld told a brief news conference after talks here with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

"I do not have hard evidence of precisely how many, or who, or where," Rumsfeld added. "And needless to say, there are an awful lot of people in the world who want to do anything possible to stop Al Qaeda from planning and executing additional terrorist acts."

Rumsfeld did not say on which side of the line Al Qaeda fighters are believed to be operating. When asked whether U.S. forces would take their hunt for the fighters into Kashmir, the defense secretary did not answer directly but praised Pakistan's assistance.

"Specifically, in the case of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Pakistan government has been very cooperative with the United States in helping to locate and, in a number of instances, they have actually captured Al Qaeda and turned them over to us, which has been a very helpful thing," Rumsfeld said.

Before flying Wednesday night to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, Rumsfeld held a series of meetings with Indian officials, including National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and Defense Minister George Fernandes.

The Indians remain skeptical about Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's promise to stop militants from using Pakistan as a launch pad for attacks against India. But for now, they appear to have accepted U.S. assurances that the Pakistani leader is sincere.

Last week, Fernandes repeated his claim that Taliban troops and Al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan had found sanctuary in Pakistan's unruly North-West Frontier Province and in the roughly one-third of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan.

"We are deeply concerned that these cadres would be encouraged to indulge in terrorist violence against India," Fernandes told a regional security conference in Singapore.

India has used that danger, and other perceived threats, to justify keeping several hundred thousand troops on high alert along the front line with Pakistan and will feel vindicated by Rumsfeld's confirmation that Al Qaeda fighters appear to be in the same area.

But Musharraf on Wednesday repeated his assertion that the danger of war between the two nuclear-armed neighbors won't pass until India pulls its forces back to peacetime positions.

"The situation will remain grim till we disengage on the border," Musharraf told reporters after talks with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in the Red Sea city of Jidda.

Although tensions are easing, the Pakistani leader said, things "can change any time."

India and Pakistan reported heavy exchanges of artillery fire Wednesday.

Pakistan said Indian forces shelled five areas in the southern and western parts of the portion of Kashmir it controls. A Pakistani soldier reportedly was wounded by artillery fire near the town of Sialkot, a few miles west of the border with the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir.

Indian army spokesperson Lt. Col. S.K. Singh said two Indian civilians were killed during clashes across the front line near Naushahra, about 60 miles northwest of Jammu, the winter capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state.

Singh said Indian and Pakistani troops also unleashed heavy artillery barrages on the northern and southern ends of the Siachen Glacier, which, at about 20,000 feet, is the world's highest battlefield.

It is also an extraordinarily expensive place to wage war because ammunition, fuel and supplies such as bread and milk must be airlifted in. So the glacier has long been a symbol of the madness of a seemingly endless conflict between two countries that suffer some of the worst poverty in the world.

Rumsfeld praised India's announcement this week that it was reopening its airspace to Pakistani commercial flights, which are still not allowed to land at Indian airports, and withdrawing several navy ships from threatening positions along Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast.

But Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called the moves "gestures which carry little substance." It criticized India for not addressing what Pakistan considers the main cause of tension--the two countries' 55-year dispute over Kashmir.

"We trust that India will soon announce further steps leading to the resumption of a meaningful dialogue between the two countries, especially the core issue of Kashmir," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Pakistan hopes that the crisis will lead to international mediation in the conflict for control of Kashmir, a mainly Muslim territory that India and Pakistan each claim, but where support for outright independence is strong.

During his talks with Indian leaders, Rumsfeld didn't present specific proposals to ease tensions but discussed various options, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters.

They included planting electronic monitoring devices, which Indian intelligence sources ruled out in interviews this week as a largely ineffective tool against infiltrators along the Line of Control. The line runs 450 miles through rugged, often mountainous, terrain.

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