Militants have power to start regional war: Zardari

MUMBAI Sun Nov 30, 2008 8:16pm EST

1 of 19. Local residents hold candles during a peace rally beside the Mumbai's landmark Marine Drive, in memory of those killed in the Mumbai terror attacks, November 30, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jayanta Shaw

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has appealed to India not to punish his country for last week's attacks in Mumbai, saying militants have the power to precipitate a war in the region, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

Zardari, whose wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by Islamist militants last year, warned that provocation by rogue "non-state actors" posed the danger of a return to war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

"Even if the militants are linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, who do you think we are fighting?" asked Zardari in an interview with the Financial Times.

"We live in troubled times where non-state actors have taken us to war before, whether it is the case of those who perpetrated (the) 9/11 (attacks on the United States) or contributed to the escalation of the situation in Iraq," said Zardari.

"Now, events in Mumbai tell us that there are ongoing efforts to carry out copycat attacks by militants. We must all stand together to fight out this menace."

The Mumbai assaults that killed nearly 200 people bore the hallmarks of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group blamed for previous attacks in India.

Indian officials have said most, perhaps all, of the 10 Islamist attackers who held Mumbai hostage with frenzied attacks using assault rifles and grenades came from Pakistan, a Muslim nation carved out of Hindu-majority India in 1947.

The fallout from the three-day rampage in Mumbai, India's commercial center, has threatened to unravel India's improving ties with Pakistan and prompted the resignation of India's security minister.

RICE VISIT

The White House said on Sunday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to India on Wednesday, as analysts warned the United States could get ensnared in the row and it may prove to be a setback in the war on Islamic radicals on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

"Secretary Rice's visit to India is a further demonstration of the United States' commitment to stand in solidarity with the people of India as we all work together to hold these extremists accountable," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.

Rice will arrive in New Delhi on Wednesday after attending a NATO meeting in London on Tuesday.

New Delhi has said it was raising security to a "war level" and had no doubt of a Pakistani link to the attacks, which unleashed anger at home over the intelligence failure and the delayed response to the violence that paralyzed India's financial capital.

Officials in Islamabad have warned any escalation would force it to divert troops to the Indian border and away from a U.S.-led anti-militant campaign on the Afghan frontier.

Zardari has vowed to crack down if given proof.

But security officials in Islamabad said Pakistan would move troops from its western border with Afghanistan, where forces are battling al Qaeda and Taliban fighters as part of the U.S.-led campaign against militancy, to the Indian border if tension escalated.

"It's part of the usual blackmail of the United States that Pakistan does to take more interest in India-Pakistan issues," said B. Raman, a former head of Indian intelligence agency RAW.

"They think this kind of argument will make the United States sit up and take notice of their sensitivities and do something about it," he added, referring to warming ties between Washington and New Delhi, including a nuclear accord.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Sunday he would boost and overhaul the nation's counterterrorism capabilities, an announcement which came after Federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil resigned over the attacks.

(Reporting by New Delhi, Mumbai and Islamabad bureau; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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