Pakistan-backed terrorists behind Indian jet's hijacking, U.S. says
General has rejected administration requests to ban group, pressure Taliban
The Dallas Morning News
By Jane Perlez / New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON - The United States now believes that a terrorist group supported by the Pakistani military was responsible for the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet last month, Clinton administration officials said.
The judgment puts Pakistan at risk of being placed on Washington's list of nations that support terrorism.
The new military leader of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was asked in a meeting with three administration officials in Islamabad last week to ban the group, Harkat ul-Mujahedeen, but the request was rebuffed, senior administration officials said.
Gen. Musharraf was also asked to exert pressure on the Taliban government in Afghanistan, with which Pakistan has friendly relations, to expel Osama bin Laden, who was implicated in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, but no progress was made with this request either, the officials said.
Information that Harkat ul-Mujahedeen was responsible for the hijacking came in the aftermath of the seizure of the jet, when it became clearer who made arrangements for the escape of the hijackers, administration officials said.
The White House must make a decision in coming weeks about whether President Clinton should visit Pakistan as part of his planned trip to India and Bangladesh at the end of March.
Rejecting a presidential visit to Pakistan during a trip that includes a visit to India would be regarded as a severe snub of a former ally, especially during the first presidential trip to the region in 21 years.
Harkat ul-Mujahedeen is the new name for Harkat ul-Ansar, a radical Kashmiri nationalist group that was put on the State Department's list of terrorist groups in 1997, officials said. The group changed its name after being added to the list.
Administration officials declined to give details of precisely what they knew about the group's role in the hijacking, which ended with 155 hostages being freed in exchange for the release from prison of three members of Harkat ul-Mujahedeen by the Indian government.
"Indications came through intelligence channels, and I don't know anybody around here, including the skeptics, who don't find that credible," an official said.
Karl Inderfurth, the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, one of the three officials who met with Gen. Musharraf, told the general that the United States was concerned about the links between Harkat ul-Mujahedeen and his military and intelligence services, officials said.
The general was told that the United States believed that Harkat ul-Mujahedeen "was responsible for the hijacking and that the United States believed the group operated openly and clandestinely" with the support of the military and intelligence services in Pakistan, a senior official said.
In response, Gen. Musharraf said he would consider the administration's request to shut down the group, but he left the impression that no action would be taken soon, the official said.
The question of Pakistan's role in the hijacking has already inflamed relations between India and Pakistan, which both possess nuclear bombs. Shortly after the hijacking, India accused Pakistan of masterminding the plot and said it had evidence to back up its claims. But the Indian government has not produced the evidence.
Relations between the two countries have plummeted to their lowest point in decades. Overlaying the heightened tensions are the activities of the terrorist groups in Pakistan.
How to deal with Pakistan since a coup on Oct. 12 ousted a civilian government has been the subject of a debate within the administration.
After the hijacking, the Indian government urged the Clinton administration to put Pakistan on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Among the nations currently on the list are Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Such a designation would effectively end all loans to Pakistan from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which some in the administration have argued would push already impoverished Pakistan into near collapse.
Even though Pakistan is believed by the Clinton administration to be harboring and supporting terrorist groups, there was substantial resistance from the Pentagon and the CIA to putting Pakistan on the list, in part because of help that Pakistan gave the United States during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, administration officials said.
The visit to Islamabad by Mr. Inderfurth, Michael Sheehan, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, and Donald Camp, the director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, was intended to lay out the administration's concerns about Pakistan on terrorism, the restoration of democracy and nuclear nonproliferation, Mr. Inderfurth said.
Mr. Inderfurth went out of his way to say that he had not "warned" the Pakistanis about what kind of punishment would come if the military government did not heed the administration's concerns.
Rather, he appeared to hold out the possibility of a March stopover by Mr. Clinton if the Pakistani government decided to take some steps against terrorism.
"We have said we cannot do business as usual with a military government in Pakistan," Mr. Inderfurth said. "Yet to influence Pakistan on democracy, terrorism and nonproliferation we have to engage them. Our president is our best engager."
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