ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The Al Qaeda terrorist group may be operating in the Kashmir region dividing India and Pakistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
Rumsfeld, in talks Thursday with Pakistan's president, was sure to discuss Islamabad's role in finding Usama bin Laden's fighters, both in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan itself and also potentially in Kashmir.
"I have seen indications that there, in fact, are Al Qaeda in the areas we're talking about, near the Line of Control" that separates the Pakistani and Indian sectors of Kashmir, Rumsfeld told a news conference in New Delhi, India, before flying to Pakistan.
"I do not have evidence of precisely how many, or who, or where" they may be, the defense secretary said. He spoke after meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to discuss the Kashmir crisis and the long-term outlook for U.S.-India military ties.
For some time, Indian officials have claimed that Al Qaeda members have infiltrated Kashmir, in part because that would draw a dramatic parallel to the U.S. war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. An Indian official said this week there is evidence of one- to two-dozen Al Qaeda fighters in the Indian part of Kashmir.
Attacks on India by Muslim militants who want Kashmir to be independent, or part of Pakistan, are a main source of tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
But U.S. officials previously have said they see no hard evidence of any large numbers of Al Qaeda in the Himalayan region.
Some of the Pakistani militants in Kashmir do have longstanding ties to Al Qaeda , and some trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. A few non-Pakistani Al Qaeda supporters are believed to have sought refuge in Kashmir, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
But it appears that Pakistanis in the Kashmir region are acting of their own volition when they launch cross-border attacks on India, the U.S. officials said.
India has insisted that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf crack down on the militants' training camps in Pakistan and keep them from crossing into India. Musharraf assured India last week that he had ordered his forces to stop fighters from crossing.
Efforts to apprehend Al Qaeda members, including in the remote and largely autonomous tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, were to be a focus of Rumsfeld's talks Thursday with Musharraf.
Rumsfeld on Wednesday credited Pakistan with helping the United States get hold of al-Qaida fighters who left Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime last fall.
For months, U.S. and allied forces hunted for remnants of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan but found almost none, leading many to conclude most had fled to Pakistan or elsewhere.
"In the case of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Pakistani government has been very cooperative with the United States in helping to locate (the terrorists), and in a number of instances they have turned them over to us," Rumsfeld said. "And that has been a very helpful thing."
The prospect of Al Qaeda gaining even a small foothold in Kashmir is troubling, in Rumsfeld's view, because a terrorist attack there could trigger a sudden military response from either India or Pakistan, which might bring the countries to the brink of war.
Rumsfeld came to New Delhi and Islamabad to keep up international pressure for an easing of tensions. He credited India with helping to ease tension since Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited both capitals last week.
"We recognize the fact that India has very recently taken a series of steps that have been useful, to be sure," Rumsfeld said.
The Indian government this week decided to allow a resumption of Pakistani commercial flights over India, and said it was pulling its warships away from waters near Pakistan.
Rumsfeld also said Indian officials told him they planned to return their ambassador to Islamabad.
In Wednesday's meetings in New Delhi, Rumsfeld discussed the possibility that U.S. ground surveillance equipment could be used to monitor activity on Kashmir's dividing line, but said no decision was made.
"It is unclear to me whether or not, and to what extent, that conceivably could be helpful," he said.