Deadly Shooting in Calcutta May Be Linked to Al Qaeda

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tying its own fight against extremists to Washington's war on terror, India charged Tuesday that gunmen who attacked a U.S. cultural center in Calcutta belong to a kidnapping ring that local police suspect used ransom payments to help bankroll the Sept. 11 strikes in America.

Indian officials also claimed that the people behind the early-morning assault, which killed five Indian police guards, could have links to Pakistan's military intelligence and two Pakistan-based groups fighting Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

No U.S. citizens were killed or injured in the attack outside the U.S. Information Service building, which is near the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city.

Pakistan's government dismissed the Indian allegation of links to its military intelligence as "baseless." Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has won strong international praise for a crackdown on Islamic extremists, but India insists that the Pakistani general, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, hasn't done enough to stop what New Delhi calls cross-border terrorism.

The Indian allegation about the Calcutta attack further complicated efforts to defuse a volatile military standoff between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The alleged connection between kidnappers in Calcutta and the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history may be difficult to prove. The man who claimed the link, accused kidnapping ringleader Asif Raza Khan, was shot dead by police Dec. 7. They said he was trying to escape.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, in New Delhi on a previously scheduled visit to meet leaders and discuss cooperation in counter-terrorism, said it was too early to lay blame.

"I understand that there have been claims of responsibility for the attack," he said. "I also understand that the investigation is ongoing, and my experience shows that making particular comments about what occurred eight hours ago is premature.

"I have to wait to see what the facts bear out to see responsibility and motivation for the attack. I am unaware of specific information in recent days relating to attacks on particular [U.S.] facilities," Mueller told a news conference.

In Washington, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity that they don't believe the incident was an anti-American terrorist attack, noting that no Americans were present at the center when it occurred.

Describing Tuesday's attack, police in Calcutta said a passenger on a motorcycle pulled an AK-47 assault rifle from underneath a shawl and opened fire on the building's security detail during a shift change. At least one gunman in a car also fired, Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani said. Other reports say four men on two motorcycles carried out the assault.

Several passersby and security guards from a private firm were among 20 people wounded, Advani said. The attackers escaped.

A Dubai-based man identified as Farhan, and also known as Aftab Malik, called to claim responsibility for the 6:30 a.m. attack, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao told reporters in New Delhi, the Indian capital.

"This person, Farhan, is believed to be in close touch with some Pakistani agencies and could have tie-ups with Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami and Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen," Rao said.

The two groups are among several battling Indian troops in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and, India's government charges, are also responsible for terrorist attacks in the state and elsewhere in India.

Harkat Moujahedeen is a Pakistan-based militia fighting in the Kashmir region. Until a year ago, it was headed by Fazlur Rehman Khalil, whose signature appeared on Osama bin Laden's February 1998 fatwa, or religious edict, calling for attacks on U.S. and other Western interests.

Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami is a small separatist group fighting in Jammu and Kashmir. According to India's government, its cadres are mostly Pakistani mercenaries. India is accusing a Bangladesh-based faction of the organization for Tuesday's attack.

The main organization's commander in chief, Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, has accused the U.S. and Israel of supporting the division of Kashmir, according to a government briefing document on terrorist groups prepared for Indian members of Parliament.

Advani, a powerful hard-liner in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Cabinet, accused Pakistan's military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, of involvement in the Calcutta attack.

Rao did not give any details to support the link with Kashmir and Pakistan.

Advani also said he had spoken to the chief minister of West Bengal state, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, who said a caller from Dubai phoned police in Calcutta to claim responsibility.

He said that the "information till now indicates that a group which kidnapped a Calcutta businessman some time back and was able to extract ransom from him" was behind Tuesday's attack.

He was referring to Calcutta shoe tycoon Partha Roy Burman, who was abducted last summer and held captive near India's border with Bangladesh, which runs the length of West Bengal state.

The kidnappers freed Burman after 15 days for a reported ransom of about $830,000. Indian police investigators suspect that some of the money eventually reached Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian who is believed to have led the terrorists who flew planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Police believe a man named Aftab Ansari, an alias for Aftab Malik, now runs the kidnapping operation from Dubai, India Today, the country's leading weekly newsmagazine, reported earlier this month. A senior Calcutta police investigator, speaking on condition he not be named due the sensitivity of his work, confirmed the report.

A Pakistani militant named Ahmad Sayed Omar Sheikh wired $100,000 of the ransom money, which he received from Ansari in Dubai, to one of Atta's bank accounts, India Today reported.

The magazine said Indian investigators "have been able to decode intercepted e-mails" that point to the link between Khan, who led the kidnapping ring, and Ansari in Dubai.

Sheikh is one of three Pakistani militants that India released from prison to free passengers of an Indian Airlines jet hijacked from Katmandu, Nepal, to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 1999.

The FBI opened a file on the hijacking because a U.S. citizen was on board.

FBI Director Mueller said Tuesday that Indian authorities had provided leads in the search for Al Qaeda members and cells, based on arrests in India.

Mueller travels next to Pakistan, whose government wants to explore possible ways to cooperate against terrorism, he said.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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