Rice flies to India to ease tension with Pakistan

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was flying to New Delhi on Tuesday to try to ease tension between India and Pakistan that has surged over the Mumbai attacks and put at risk U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region.

The three-day rampage by 10 Islamist gunmen that turned India’s financial capital into a televised war zone last week stoked longstanding Indian anger that Pakistan is unwilling or unable to stop militants on its soil from attacking India.

Rice cut short a European tour to go to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whom is under election-year pressure to craft a muscular response to opposition criticism that his ruling Congress party is weak on security.

Rice played down reports that India had been warned by the United States: “The problem with terrorism is that information is useful but it is not always something that you can prevent,” she told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday.

On Monday, India renewed a longstanding demand for about 20 fugitives it believes are hiding in Pakistan.

Officials said the list includes Dawood Ibrahim, a Mumbai underworld boss blamed for 1993 bombings in Mumbai that killed 250, and Maulana Masood Azhar, a Pakistani Muslim cleric freed from jail in India in exchange for passengers on a hijacked jet.

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said military action was not being considered but later warned a peace process begun in 2004 was at risk if Pakistan did not act decisively.

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His Pakistani counterpart offered a joint probe to find the militants responsible for the killing spree in Mumbai in which 183 people were killed.

“We don’t want to do anything in haste. We don’t want to do anything that fuels confrontation,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters after an all-party meeting on relations with India. “We want to defuse the situation.”

Islamabad has yet to answer the demand for the fugitives.

Pakistan has warned that any military escalation by India would prompt it to shift troops to the Indian border, and away from its western frontier with Afghanistan where U.S. forces are carrying out an anti-militant campaign.

The United States, Britain and the European Union this week urged Pakistan’s civilian government to cooperate with the probe. Islamabad denied involvement and condemned the attacks, and has said it is battling the same kind of enemy at home.

Mumbai’s police chief Hasan Gafoor said the attackers had trained for a year or more in commando tactics.

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Azam Amir Kasav, the only gunmen of the 10 not killed by commandos, told investigators he is a Pakistani citizen from Punjab, Gafoor said.

Investigators have said a former Pakistani army officer led the training, organized by the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba group blamed for a 2001 attack on India’s parliament. Ibrahim is said to be one of its financial backers.

The 2001 attack nearly set off the fourth war between the two countries since Muslim Pakistan was carved from Hindu-majority India in 1947 after independence from Britain.

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U.S. officials say the attacks bear the hallmarks of operations by groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, both of which have fought Indian rule in Kashmir.

“I don’t think we can rule out al Qaeda, I just don’t think we know at this point,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Many Indians have expressed anger at apparent intelligence lapses and a slow security reaction to the attacks against Mumbai’s two best-known luxury hotels and other landmarks in the city of 18 million.

Reporting by New Delhi, Mumbai, Islamabad and Washington bureaux, Sue Pleming in Brussels and Adrian Croft in London; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Richard Balmforth