- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2000

A high-ranking State Department official says Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI) is fomenting extremist violence in India's northeast, possibly working through dissident groups with bases in Bangladesh.

"We believe the ISI is helping the militants in Assam," said the State Department official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

"Since they attack unarmed civilians for political purposes, [the militants] meet the classical definition of terrorists."

Indian and Bangladeshi sources said their governments had determined independently that ISI agents in Bangladesh were encouraging, training and arming some of the militants of the United Liberation Front of Assam and other groups.

The militants for more than 10 years have been blowing up trains and shooting policemen and civilian officials with a goal of winning independence for Assam, a remote Indian state almost entirely cut off by Bangladesh.

Indian academic and journalist Rajeev Sharma charged in a 1999 book that ISI's goal in backing the anti-India extremists in Bangladesh was "to disintegrate northeastern India."

The accusations come as President Clinton prepares to visit India, Bangladesh and Pakistan from March 19 to 26 despite recommendations by his Secret Service that he faces a risk from terrorists in Pakistan.

India for years has claimed that Pakistan is aiding militant separatist groups in Assam.

But the comments by the senior U.S. official in an interview were the first indication that the United States also believes Pakistan is working to spread discord 500 miles from its border with India.

The United States earlier this year accused Pakistan of granting refuge and support to the Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, the group blamed for hijacking an Indian Airlines passenger plane in Kathmandu, Nepal, in December.

Indian diplomatic sources say Pakistan also gave arms and training in the 1980s to Sikh separatists crusading in Punjab for a separate state they would call Khalistan.

India also blames Pakistan for encouraging Islamic militant groups based in Pakistan to cross the border into Indian-held portions of Kashmir, which has been torn by sectarian fighting since 1990.

Zamir Akram, deputy chief of mission at Pakistan's embassy in Washington, denied the charges Thursday. He in turn accused India's intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of sponsoring terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

"It's not unusual for India to blame the ISI for everything," said Mr. Akram. "It's impossible. What kind of outreach can ISI have in Assam?

"We accuse the Indians of terrorist acts in Pakistan. We have arrested people who were interrogated and said they were paid by RAW to plant bombs in railway stations and markets."

Mr. Akram also said there were reports RAW was behind sectarian violence in Karachi and that some Indian politicians openly advocated terrorism against Pakistan as a punishment for its anti-Indian stance in Kashmir.

A senior South Asian diplomat who is not from India said Thursday that Pakistan's ISI has been infiltrated by Islamic militants who are working with fundamentalists in Bangladesh to prepare attacks on India.

"The ISI is active in Bangladesh," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "ISI is very active and has a large number of fundamentalists in the organization and they have links with fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh.

"We are very watchful about it, and if we find any link we try to bring them to justice. We have told the U.S. State Department to be careful about that and keep a watch on their activities."

Pakistan's ISI also is acting in the politics of Bangladesh "to destabilize the political setup through fundamentalist elements with links to the Afghans," said the diplomat.

The Indian diplomat noted that last year a Bangladeshi man working with the Osama bin Laden terrorist group in Afghanistan was caught in New Delhi preparing to bomb a U.S. consulate.

Bangladesh is a mostly Muslim country of 140 million that was part of Pakistan until it won independence in a bloody civil war in 1971, aided by the Indian army.

Some Bangladeshi political and military groups still hate India and favor Pakistan. Bangladesh sources accuse them of allowing the ISI to operate.

Supporters of bin Laden recently were captured in Bangladesh, where they had infiltrated with the help of ISI, according to the sources.

Bangladesh Ambassador K.M. Shehabuddin said Thursday that Pakistani intelligence has been operating terrorist cells in his country, but they have been stymied by the Awami League government of Sheik Hasina, who is grateful for India's help to her father, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, in the struggle against Pakistan in 1971.

"The present government makes it impossible for ISI to operate against India from Bangladesh the president won't allow it," he said. "We are careful about it. We are always opposed to fundamentalism.

"We want good neighbors."

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