Pakistani Militants Admit Role in Siege, Official Says

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January 1, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities have obtained confessions from members of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba that they were involved in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November that killed more than 160 people, a Pakistani official said.

The confessions are sure to put pressure on Pakistan’s leaders; senior Pakistani officials have repeatedly complained in recent weeks that India had not provided them evidence of Pakistani complicity.

American and British officials — and Indian investigators — have said for weeks that their intelligence clearly points to the involvement of Lashkar in the Mumbai attacks. That evidence has been deeply uncomfortable for Pakistan, whose premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, helped create, finance and train Lashkar in the 1980s to fight a proxy war against Indian forces in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.

But now, after weeks of stonewalling, it also seems clear that Pakistan may use its investigation to make the case that the Mumbai attackers were not part of a conspiracy carried out with the spy agency, known as the ISI, but that the militants were operating on their own and outside the control of government agents.

The most talkative of the senior Lashkar leaders being interrogated is said to be Zarrar Shah, the Pakistani official said. American intelligence officials say they believe that Mr. Shah, the group’s communications chief, has served as a conduit between Lashkar and the ISI. His close ties to the agency and his admission of involvement in the attacks are sure to be unsettling for the government and its spy agency.

An operational leader of Lashkar, Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, is also said to be cooperating with investigators. News of Mr. Shah’s confession was reported by The Wall Street Journal.

“These guys showed no remorse,” said the Pakistani official. “They were bragging. They didn’t need to be pushed, tortured or waterboarded” into making their statements.

The confessions made no mention of any involvement by the Pakistani government, said the official, who added, “They talk about people acting on their own.”

Though Pakistani authorities announced that the men had been detained in the first week of December, the official declined to say how long it took for them to confess their role in the Mumbai siege. The official also declined to specify how many confessions had been obtained, and said, “It’s not just one confession.”

The details of which security officials were carrying out the interrogations, where the suspects were being detained and whether they faced any charges all remained murky, and other Pakistani officials declined to discuss the matter or to confirm the Pakistani official’s account.

A government spokesman deflected direct questions about Pakistani complicity in the attacks and about the confessions by Lashkar members. “The idea that a person has spilled the beans while India has not even shared evidence with us seems far-fetched,” said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan.

But Indian officials and other skeptics are sure to question how seriously interrogations by Pakistani security officials could be expected to examine any possible role by the ISI in the attacks.

American intelligence officials say they believe that links remain between Lashkar and the ISI, and that the spy agency has helped support the militant group for the past several years by sharing intelligence and providing protection.

But American officials say they also believe that the spy agency has become more careful to mask its ties with militants since this summer, when American officials accused the spy agency of involvement in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan.

One Lashkar fighter who left the group several years ago said in an interview that the agency was directly involved in planning operations in the disputed Kashmir region. The agency’s officers were “at the table” as missions were being sketched out, the former Lashkar fighter said.

However, an active member of Lashkar said in an interview that relations with Pakistani security forces had grown cold. “We always had to hide from the Indian military, but now we have to hide from the Pakistani military as well,” he said.

The ISI has always been a powerful and semiautonomous agency, and its top officers have maintained strong links to Islamist militants. There is some hope that the appointment three months ago of a new spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who previously oversaw military operations against militants in Pakistan’s lawless western districts, signaled a move away from sympathies with the Islamist fighters who control much of the region bordering Afghanistan.

Mr. Zardari told President Bush during a telephone call on Wednesday that his government would “not allow its territory to be used by nonstate actors for launching attacks on other countries” and that “anybody found involved in such attacks from the soil of Pakistan will be dealt with sternly,” according to Pakistan’s state news agency.

Despite the official assurances, some Pakistani officials appeared open to the idea that Pakistani militants carried out the operation. Mahmud Ali Durrani, the national security adviser, said in an interview broadcast on Tuesday that it “could be” that some or all of the Mumbai attackers were Pakistanis.

One reason that Indian government officials have refused to provide substantive evidence so far, the Pakistani official said, is because they “are scared their intelligence methods will be discovered” by their Pakistani rivals.

Indian officials have shared evidence with the United States and certain other governments, but they have not permitted that information to be shared with Pakistan, said one Western official.

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.

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