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Tensions mount as Zardari rules out handing over fugitives to India

world Updated: Dec 04, 2008 01:09 IST
V. Krishna and Amit Baruah
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Puncturing hopes for cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has ruled out handing over wanted fugitives to India and questioned the Pakistani nationality of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorist captured during the Mumbai 26/11 attacks.

“At the moment these are just names of individuals. No proof, no investigation, nothing has been brought forward,” Zardari told CNN in an interview when asked if Pakistan would hand over to India fugitives such as gangster Dawood Ibrahim and terror chiefs Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed.

If there was proof, he said, they would be tried in Pakistani courts.

Zardari did not stop at India’s old list. “We have not been given any tangible proof to say that he is definitely a Pakistani. I very much doubt...that he’s a Pakistani,” Zardari said on Tuesday about Ajmal Amir Kasab, the LeT terrorist arrested by the Mumbai police.

With Zardari rebuffing India’s demands for the handover of the 20-odd fugitives, the stage is set for a further escalation in the ongoing row between the two countries.

Responding to Zardari’s comments, external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee said on Wednesday that India was still awaiting a response from Pakistan on its demarche, or diplomatic protest, lodged with Islamabad, demanding that the wanted fugitives be handed over. Mukherjee made it clear that India’s future course of action would depend on the response New Delhi got from the Pakistani side.

“The gunmen, plus the planners, whoever they are, they are stateless actors who are holding hostage the whole world...the state of Pakistan is no way responsible,” Zardari said as Lashkar boss Hafiz Saeed gave an interview to a Pakistani television channel. Saeed feared an attack by Indian forces on his Muridke headquarters, considered to be the base of the LeT front, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. India, Saeed said, should focus on investigations into the Mumbai attacks.

Zardari said he would not know if the LeT was involved in the 26/11 Mumbai carnage. Like al-Qaeda, it operated outside the system, he said. “I’m a victim. The state of Pakistan is a victim. We are the victims of this war, and I am sorry for the Indians,” said Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “I’ve seen this pain. I feel this pain every time I see my children.”

Zardari downplayed the potential for another war with India, saying “democracies don't go to war”. Pakistan, he reiterated, would never be the first to use a nuclear weapon.

He was asked about US President-elect Barack Obama’s statement during the campaign that if Islamabad did not act after receiving specific intelligence, the US had the right to attack terrorist targets in Pakistan. “That would never arise,” said Zardari. “The minute we get any actionable intelligence, we shall act ourselves.”

When his attention was drawn to a report that Pakistan could be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the US, possibly with weapons of mass destruction, Zardari said, “Ever the more reason that Pakistan needs more help...It’s part of the war in Afghanistan.” On the Pakistani intelligence agencies’ record of supporting militant movements, Zardari admitted, “In the past, lots of mistakes have been made.”