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U.S. Offer to Help Probe India Violence Protested

Leftists slam a proposal for the FBI to join the investigation of rebel attacks. Some say the agency seeks to explore ties to Islamic militants.

October 08, 2004|Shankhadeep Choudhury | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — An offer of FBI assistance in the investigation of a string of rebel attacks in India's troubled northeast has sparked anger from left-wing allies of the country's ruling coalition and questions among intelligence agencies here.

The offer came in condolence letters sent Monday by U.S. Ambassador David C. Mulford to the chief ministers of Assam and Nagaland states, which have been rocked by rebel attacks that killed more than 80 people and injured more than 200.

A similar overture was made to Shivraj Patil, head of the federal Home Affairs Ministry, which is responsible for security matters.

The Communist Party of India reacted strongly to the offer, calling it "interference."

"Involving the FBI should be outrightly rejected. It is totally unacceptable," said the party's national secretary, D. Raja, who also criticized the ambassador for writing directly to the two state ministers.

Sitaram Yechury, leader of the separate Communist Party of India (Marxist), also called the offer unacceptable.

India's Congress Party-led government relies on the support of the Communist parties to maintain a parliamentary majority.

The ambassador's letter condemned the attacks, which included a series of bombings and shootings Saturday at marketplaces and a train platform that left at least 46 dead.

"We are prepared, if requested, to facilitate the appropriate assistance of the FBI to aid in the criminal investigation by Indian authorities so that the perpetrators can be identified and brought to justice," the letter said.

"In this context, the United States has considerable expertise in investigative techniques including, for example, such areas as forensic analysis of explosive residues. Should you find it helpful, the FBI would be pleased to provide technical support for your investigation. I have also made this offer to Home Minister Shivraj Patil."

Assam state was quick to respond.

"I would not mind taking U.S. help," Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said Tuesday in the state capital, Guwahati. He added, however, that he would have to seek New Delhi's clearance to accept the offer.

Gogoi offered a cease-fire last week to militants from two of Assam's largest ethnic groups, which have been fighting for decades -- one for autonomy, the other for independence.

In Nagaland, the state government and two major rebel groups have a cease-fire in place and budding peace talks.

Some members of the security establishment voiced concern about the ambassador's letter.

"Such an offer should have been made only to the federal government," said a senior intelligence official who requested anonymity. "Besides, we too have excellent explosive experts."

Several security officials suggested that the FBI may want to get involved in the investigations to determine, among other things, whether the explosives involved in last weekend's attacks were similar to those set off Aug. 21 at a political rally in neighboring Bangladesh, which killed about 30 people.

"It is believed that the explosives used in several of the Assam attacks were of Arges 84 model," which is commonly used in grenades, said another Indian intelligence official who requested anonymity Thursday. "This explosive was used by the Taliban guerrillas against the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, besides during the attack on the Indian Parliament on Dec.13, 2001.

"Since the FBI is already investigating the Bangladeshi rally incident, it is quite natural that they discovered how some of these explosives also [ended up] with northeast Indian terrorists," the official added.

Indian intelligence officials have long maintained that Bangladesh tolerates the presence of Al Qaeda elements that help Islamic militants and ethnic rebels in northeast India.

"As many as 1,500-odd Indian rebels operate out of at least 80 facilities inside Bangladesh," the intelligence official said. "We feel that the FBI, on the whole, is interested to explore the linkages of northeast rebels with Islamic terror groups."

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