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Rumsfeld soothes ruffled feathers

©Los Angeles Times
June 14, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Working swiftly to heal a diplomatic rift with Pakistan that threatened to distract from his peace mission to South Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday he had no hard information that al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida'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.

India 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-Qaida elements are a part of this incursion would seem to buttress India's strong actions.

Pakistani authorities have never denied that some al-Qaida 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-Qaida activity in Kashmir.

In an attempt to ease tensions with India, Musharraf earlier 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.

During a 30-minute news conference, Rumsfeld worked hard to soothe Pakistani sensitivities, repeatedly praising the country's counterterrorism efforts under Musharraf. At one point, he said that if there were what he termed "actionable intelligence" on the presence of al-Qaida fighters in Pakistani-controlled areas, he was sure Islamabad would act.

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

They already have.

Working closely with American intelligence, Pakistani police arrested about 20 al-Qaida members in the cities of Lahore and Faisalabad in April. Again acting on U.S.-provided information, authorities in March arrested Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida leader.

Rumsfeld's two-day visit to the troubled South Asia 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 Armitage coaxed a series of initial steps from Indian and Pakistani leaders that appeared to reduce the immediate risk of war.

Rumsfeld appeared to be consolidating those gains Thursday.

But Rumsfeld, together with Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, cautioned that 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."

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