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Rumsfeld Moves to Allay Pakistani Ire

Asia: Defense secretary tones down his remarks about Al Qaeda presence in Kashmir. Despite the controversy, his peace mission is still on track.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Working swiftly to heal a diplomatic rift with Pakistan that threatened to distract from his peace mission to South Asia, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday said he had no hard information that Al Qaeda fighters were operating near the Pakistani-Indian frontier in Kashmir.

"The facts are that I do not have evidence and the United States does not have evidence of Al Qaeda in Kashmir," Rumsfeld told a news conference here after a day of talks with President Pervez Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders.

"We do have a good deal of scraps of intelligence ... ," he added. "It tends to be speculative. It is not actionable, it is not verifiable."

Rumsfeld's remarks came only 24 hours after he told reporters in New Delhi that he had "seen indications" of Al Qaeda's presence in Kashmir--a statement that delighted India but caused dismay and thinly concealed anger in Pakistan.

Although embarrassing, the controversy appeared to cause no immediate damage to U.S. diplomatic efforts to pull the two nuclear-armed nations back from the brink of war over Kashmir, a mainly Muslim region divided between them and claimed by both.

"The goal ... is to see that the tensions are reduced, and I think progress is indeed being made," Rumsfeld said.

New Delhi has justified its military buildup in Kashmir as a necessity to defend itself against Pakistan-supported militants crossing into the Indian-controlled portion of the disputed region. U.S. claims that Al Qaeda elements are a part of this incursion would seem to buttress India's strong actions.

Pakistani authorities have never denied that some Al Qaeda fighters found refuge in Pakistan after the collapse of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in December. But Thursday, they dismissed as baseless allegations of Al Qaeda activity in Kashmir.

In an attempt to ease tensions with India, Musharraf this year began reining in myriad lesser-known Islamic militant groups that had conducted a guerrilla campaign in Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir from bases on the Pakistani side of the frontier.

Rumsfeld's initial statement carried an added sting here in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, because Musharraf is already under pressure domestically from the country's vocal fundamentalist minority, first for siding with the West against the Taliban last fall and more recently for the crackdown against militants in Kashmir.

"After doing so much to assist the United States in the war against terrorism, these remarks won't be taken so kindly," Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said in an interview.

Musharraf's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, was less diplomatic in his reaction to Rumsfeld's comments in New Delhi: "Absolutely incorrect," he told Reuters news service.

During a 30-minute news conference, Rumsfeld worked hard to soothe Pakistani sensitivities, repeatedly praising the country's counter-terrorism efforts under Musharraf.

At one point, he said that if there were what he termed "actionable intelligence" on the presence of Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistani-controlled areas, he was sure that Islamabad would act.

"There isn't a doubt in my mind that the Pakistani government would go find them and deal with them," the secretary told reporters.

The authorities already have. Working closely with American intelligence, Pakistani police arrested about 20 Al Qaeda members in the cities of Lahore and Faisalabad in April. A month earlier, again acting on U.S.-provided information, authorities arrested Abu Zubeida, a top Al Qaeda leader.

Rumsfeld's two-day visit to the troubled South Asian region was the second this month by a senior member of the Bush administration. Tensions began to ease late last week after Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage coaxed a series of initial steps from Indian and Pakistani leaders that appeared to reduce the immediate risk of war.

Rumsfeld on Thursday appeared to be consolidating those gains.

He referred to Pakistan's efforts to reduce infiltration of armed militants into Indian-controlled areas, as well as New Delhi's decision to withdraw some warships from forward areas in the Arabian Sea and its intention to return its ambassador to Islamabad, as signs that the leaders of both countries wanted to step back from the prospect of armed conflict.

But Rumsfeld, together with Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar, cautioned that these diplomatic moves had yet to be accompanied by any sign of a military pullback on the ground.

"We welcomed the steps, however marginal, that India has taken [because] they have had a certain psychological impact," Sattar told reporters. "But there is no change whatsoever in the capability of Indian forces massed on our borders."

The so-called Line of Control separating Pakistani- and Indian-held areas of Kashmir reportedly was quiet Thursday after days of artillery and small-arms fire between the two armies.

Rumsfeld said he had brought no specific proposal for independent monitoring of the Line of Control as a way to build confidence between the two South Asian nations, but he stressed that the U.S. was prepared to explore the possible use of electronic devices along the frontier.

"If people want to do that, we'd be happy to provide the technical people to discuss it," Rumsfeld said.

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