NEW DELHI, India – India's defense minister said Tuesday that members of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and Taliban fighters from Afghanistan are among the militants in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
"We have information that the number of terrorists who are on the other side of the border ... (are) people who have fled from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda men and Talibanis," Defense Minister George Fernandes said in a television interview.
Fernandes spoke on independent Star News Television, responding to a speech given Monday by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in which the Pakistani leader said there was no more infiltration of militants across the cease-fire line that separates the Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir.
The South Asian neighbors have fought two wars over Kashmir since they gained independence from Britain in 1947 and both claim the Himalayan region in its entirety.
"For Musharraf to say that infiltration is now no more there, first of all it is an admission that it was there and they were responsible for that," Fernandes said. "But what he has said about the present situation is totally wrong."
A Pakistani army spokesman rejected Fernandes' statement as baseless. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told The Associated Press in Islamabad there were no Al Qaeda men or Taliban in Kashmir.
A senior Indian security official in Kashmir told The Associated Press that intelligence on the presence of Al Qaeda forces in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir has been available since the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
According to ground intelligence, including information from guerrilla training camps inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 militants in the region, the intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A large number of militants were believed to be Al Qaeda members, he said, most of whom are believed to be Saudi citizens.
The Bush administration has long said the Al Qaeda network is extensive, and likely spread across dozens of countries far from its former headquarters in Afghanistan.
U.S. Special Forces troops assigned to the war in Afghanistan recently have deployed to western Pakistan's tribal belt to help Pakistani troops flush the militants out.
The Indian intelligence report was the first suggestion that large numbers of fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban were in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials on the report.
India accuses Pakistan of waging a proxy war by training, arming and funding Islamic militants based in Pakistan and Pakistan's portion of Kashmir, and allowing them or helping them to cross the frontier into Indian territory.
Pakistan has denied Indian charges that it supports the Islamic extremists with money and arms, but says it give "moral" support for what it calls a freedom struggle. Pakistan has repeatedly said that the fighters in Kashmir are Kashmiris.
Even before the Taliban's collapse, Indian soldiers and police had said that some of the guerrillas they had killed were Pakistanis, Afghans, Saudis and other nationalities, in addition to Kashmiris.
A million troops are deployed on both sides of the "Line of Control" frontier in Kashmir, and Pakistan has ratcheted up the pressure with three missile tests in recent days that it claimed were unrelated to the current dispute. India has blamed Pakistani-based militants for two major attacks over the past six months. The Islamabad government and the militants denied involvement.