ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — India on Friday charged that militants with links to Pakistan were involved in the terrorist attack on major tourist sites in Mumbai, in which more than 160 civilians died. Pakistan denied the allegations but agreed to send an intelligence official to discuss them.
The rapidly rising tensions could scuttle a tentative peace process between the two nuclear-armed countries and even lead to a military confrontation, and some experts said they thought this might've been the aim of the terror operation.
"Preliminary reports point towards Karachi," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, Gilani's office said in a statement.
"Preliminary evidence indicates elements with links to Pakistan are involved," Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee said. He added, however: "Proof cannot be disclosed at this time."
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Gilani accepted Singh's request to send the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's premier spy agency, Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, "for exchange of information." Later, Pakistan decided to dispatch a more junior ISI official instead, news reports said.
"When we're not involved, and we have nothing to hide, we should not fear about this," Gilani said at a news conference, defending the move.
Indian naval officials said the militants came by boat from the Pakistani port of Karachi, while the home (interior) minister, Jaiprakash Jaiswal said that a captured gunman had been identified as a Pakistani. Vilasrao Deshmukh, the head of the provincial government, said two British-born Pakistanis were among gunmen arrested by Indian authorities.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said preliminary information indicated that the terrorists may be from the Kashmiri separatist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Righteous, the armed wing of an extreme Pakistan-based Sunni Muslim missionary organization blamed for numerous attacks in India. The group has close links with Pakistan's intelligence services.
He said that the group is known for staging highly coordinated attacks by skilled fighters who are prepared to die. He also noted, however, that there are differences between the group's previous attacks and the assault on Mumbai, which singled out foreign nationals. The official asked for anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue openly.
Other experts suggested that India-based militants were involved in the attacks.
"This is beyond the capability of Lashkar-e-Taiba and beyond Pakistani intelligence," said Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University and author of "Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism."
"This is a new brand of radical Muslim group, a modern face, which is more similar to attacks in London (in 2005) and Madrid (in 2004) than with the Kashmiri cause."
Abbas pointed out that the clean-shaven young assailants, captured in photographs, who clearly knew their way round luxury hotels, didn't appear to be the products of an education at a madrassa — an Islamic school — in Pakistan, which would be typical for members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and similar groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Wilson John, a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based policy group, said Lashkar-e-Taiba was "the prime suspect." John, a critic of Pakistan, said the "modus operandi is the same as their past attacks, an attack with assault rifles in a public place."
Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved, by its own admission in the 2000 armed attack on the Red Fort in Delhi and the assault on the Indian parliament in 2001, and a temple in the Indian city of Ahmedabad in 2002. However, those strikes were amateurish compared with the well-organized and large-scale terrorist operation in Mumbai this week and weren't directed against Western nationals.
A former Pakistani security official, in contact with figures associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, who could not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the group appeared to be "totally stunned" by the Mumbai attacks. The militant outfit also issued a formal denial on Thursday.
Al Qaida has strongly influenced Pakistani extremist groups, including Lashgar-e-Taiba, and many Pakistani militants were trained in Osama bin Laden's camps prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Lashgar fighters are known to have trained "from time to time" at bases belonging to bin Laden's terrorist network in Pakistan's remote tribal area bordering Afghanistan, the U.S. counterterrorism official said. However, al Qaida has shown little interest in India.
While Lashgar has had close ties with ISI, the U.S. counterterrorism official said it wasn't believed that there was any official Pakistan government involvement in the Mumbai assault.
Meanwhile, groups claiming to be Indian have taken responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in India over the last 18 months, including the latest in Mumbai.
Experts said the Indian groups could be linked to a home-grown extremist organization, the Students Islamic Movement of India, which was banned in 2002. The younger generation among India's 150 million Muslims are being radicalized as a result of economic and social exclusion in the Hindu-majority country.
Some experts said that the group behind the Mumbai assault could be a hybrid of foreign and local radicals, including al Qaida. The city's criminal underworld, blamed for terrorist attacks in the past, could also be involved, especially a group called D-Company headed by fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim — who's believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
"I distinctly see the hand of Dawood Ibrahim's gang, in the knowledge of Mumbai we witnessed," said Maloy Krishna Dhar, a former joint director of India's Intelligence Bureau, a spy agency, "But the executors of the program were not local boys."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)
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