WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. general expressed concern to Congress on Tuesday about the expanding reach of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, warning it was no longer solely focused on India or even South Asia.
LeT, one of the largest and best-funded Islamic militant organizations in the region, is blamed for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, which killed 166 people in India’s commercial capital.
The group was nurtured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency to fight India in Kashmir, and analysts say it is still unofficially tolerated even though Islamabad banned the group nearly a decade ago.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, told a Senate hearing the United States was actively working with South Asian governments including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India to contain LeT.
But he cautioned that the group was active elsewhere.
“Unquestionably they have spread their influence internationally and are no longer solely focused in South Asia and on India,” Willard told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The United States has evidence of LeT’s presence in Europe and the broader Asia-Pacific region, he said.
In the past, LeT has fielded militants in Canada and in the United States.
India continues to be LeT’s main target. But Willard noted that the group has declared holy war against the United States and renewed longstanding concerns in Washington about attacks by LeT militants against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“The discussion regarding the government of Pakistan’s relationship to LeT is a very sensitive one,” Willard said.
The comments come at a sensitive time in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Pakistan is demanding the United States scale back CIA activities and reduce the number U.S. Special Forces trainers in the latest example of strained security ties.
Although the U.S. focus in Pakistan remains on al Qaeda and militant groups more deeply involved in Afghanistan, there has been increasing attention in Washington on LeT, particularly since the arrest of Pakistani-American David Headley in 2009.
Headley had joined LeT hoping to fight in Kashmir but ended up scouting out targets for the Mumbai attackers and helping al Qaeda plan a strike in Denmark.
“It’s important that this particular discussion continue to take place and that we continue to work with the government of Pakistan to root out terrorism that exists within their borders,” Willard said.
The White House last week warned that despite unprecedented efforts by Pakistan to go after militants within its borders, it lacked a clear path to defeat them.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham