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By Alistair Scrutton and Bappa Majumdar
NEW DELHI, March 15 A bombing that killed 16 people in western India last month was carried out by home-grown Islamists with links to militants in Pakistan, a top Indian security official said on Monday.
The bombing came days before an important official dialogue between India and Pakistan and was the first major attack in India since the 2008 Mumbai raid by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militants who killed 166 people.
"All the evidence which is coming currently is showing that it is the IM (Indian Mujahideen), rather than a Hindu militant group involved in the Pune blast," Gopal Pillai, India's Home Secretary, told Reuters in an interview.
It was the first time a senior government official has blamed a particular group for the bombing. Pillai is the top civil servant in the interior ministry.
Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidamabaram promised last week a swift and decisive response if any militant attacks on Indian soil were found to have been planned and executed from Pakistan.
The Indian Mujahideen (IM), an offshoot of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), first emerged in 2007 and 2008 when it claimed responsibility for a wave of bomb attacks in major Indian cities.
Pillai said IM operatives are being trained in Pakistan and have links with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the largest Pakistan-based militant groups, also blamed for the Mumbai attacks.
"The handlers are the same, the set of handlers which was involved in Mumbai," Pillai said, referring to the weekend arrest of two suspected IM operatives in Mumbai, who were believed to be planning bomb attacks, including in the offices of energy firm Oil and Natural Gas Corp.
He said the growing power of LeT was a big threat to peace in the region and said the militant group was spreading its tentacles beyond India and Pakistan.
Security experts say the LeT is now focusing on foreigners as targets and is fast emerging as an alternative to al Qaeda as a powerful militant group with a global presence.
"At least in the Middle East we find people (LeT militants). In Dubai, in Sharjah, in Saudi Arabia, the tentacles are there of the LeT," Pillai said.
He said the LeT had even spread to Hong Kong and into Singapore.
Pillai said the reason there has not been a repetition of an attack like Mumbai was 25 percent due to geopolitics and Pakistan holding back, perhaps fearing Indian retaliation, and 75 percent due to the busting of at least 14 IM cells since 2008.
"There are several modules still there ... Our real fear is something they are doing now for something in 2011 or 2012. We do not know who is doing it," Pillai added. (Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Jon Hemming)