ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan on Saturday withdrew an offer to send its spy chief to India to help investigate the Mumbai terrorist attacks, damaging efforts to head off a crisis between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Indian officials have linked the attacks to “elements” in Pakistan, raising the prospect of a breakdown in painstaking peace talks between South Asian rivals that has alarmed the U.S. However, Washington also kept up the pressure on Pakistan with a suspected missile strike on an al-Qaeda and Taliban stronghold near the Afghan border that reportedly killed two people.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani insisted on Friday that his country was not involved in the carnage that left more than 190 people dead in India’s financial capital.
With Pakistan promising to help identify and apprehend those responsible, Gilani’s office said the head of the Inter Services Intelligence agency would go to India at the request of India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh. However, Zahid Bashir, a spokesman for Gilani, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the decision had been changed and that a lower-ranking intelligence official would travel instead. He declined to explain the about-face, which followed sharp criticism from some Pakistani opposition politicians and a cool response from the army, which controls the spy agency.
Bashir didn’t say who would be making the trip or when. India has repeatedly accused Pakistan of complicity in terrorist attacks on its soil, many of which it traces to militant groups fighting Indian rule in the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
Pakistan insists its support for agitation in Kashmir, where anti-India sentiment runs high, is only moral and political. But it is widely believed to have supported the militants with training and equipment.
Infiltration into Kashmir from Pakistan has eased in recent years under U.S. pressure, and relations have improved markedly under a peace process begun in 2004. But ties nose-dived again in July when India accused Pakistan’s ISI spy agency of involvement in the bombing of its embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The United States has being trying to persuade Islamabad to shift its security focus from India, with which it has fought three wars, to Islamic militants along the Afghan border.
President-elect Barack Obama has identified rapprochement between the two countries as a main plank of his plan to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat al-Qaeda.
Reflecting U.S. concern, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the foreign minister of India twice, as well as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, since the crisis began.
“There were very worrying tensions in the region,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Friday. “She was calling the president of Pakistan to get his read on how those tensions might be affected.”
A clear Pakistani link to the attacks could support Washington’s goals if a regional crisis is averted and Pakistani authorities agree to take tougher action against militant groups on their soil.
U.S. forces have increasingly taken matters into their own hands by launching more than 20 suspected missile strikes in Pakistan since August, despite Pakistani protests that the tactic is fueling hard-line Islamist sentiment.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials said Saturday’s strike destroyed a house in the North Waziristan region.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their work, said several more people were injured. The identity of the victims was not clear.