NEW DELHI, India - U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he had "seen indications" that al-Qaida was operating in the disputed Kashmir region, but he cautioned that there was no concrete intelligence on the numbers or nationality of the fighters.
Rumsfeld has spoken previously of possible al-Qaida infiltration into Kashmir, but his comments came after a day of talking with Indian leaders in an effort to help find a path away from war between India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed rivals that have placed 1 million troops on their border.
Indian leaders have accused Pakistan of harboring and training Islamic militants in Kashmir and demanded under threat of war that such support stop. The comments by Rumsfeld, who is to hold talks in Pakistan today, seemed to back Indian contentions and to place U.S. and Indian interests in combating terrorism in line.
Indian officials said Rumsfeld had presented "a menu of things we could do to de-escalate" the crisis, such as restoring rail and bus service or putting the military on a lower state of alert.
Many of his proposals were the same as India's, the officials said, but they added that India had no plans to take any more measures to reduce tensions until Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, followed through on promises he had made to stop infiltration of militants into the Indian-held part of Kashmir and to dismantle their training camps.
Immediately after his session yesterday with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Rumsfeld was asked about claims, raised by senior Indian leaders, that Osama bin Laden's network had infiltrated Kashmir.
"I have seen indications that there, in fact, are al-Qaida in the area," Rumsfeld said. "I do not have hard evidence of how many or who or where."
One important issue that U.S. and allied intelligence services have not resolved is whether al-Qaida fighters in Kashmir - if they are indeed there - are Kashmiris with links to bin Laden and were perhaps trained in his Afghan camps, or whether they are terrorists from other nations who have fled the war in Afghanistan.
A Western diplomat in Islamabad said this week that about 300 members of al-Qaida were believed to be active in Kashmir, some fighting in the Indian part and others operating on the Pakistani side of the cease-fire line. Many al-Qaida fighters, the diplomat said, went to Kashmir after the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan late last year.
Concern over training camps and infiltration prompted Indian officials to strike a tough stance ahead of Rumsfeld's arrival.
Assessing the impact of recent diplomatic efforts to defuse the situation, one senior Indian official predicated: "You'll see alternating hard-line positions and some concessions. That's part of the process."
Yesterday, the position was hard-line. Nirupama Rao, spokeswoman for India's Foreign Ministry, made clear that no more gestures to ease the crisis could be expected right away.
"We would like to wait and watch until we see precise implementation of the commitments made" by Musharraf, she said. "No further de-escalatory steps are being contemplated until these assessments are completed."
As expected, Rumsfeld and India's leaders discussed the potential use of U.S. surveillance technology to monitor infiltration in an effort to halt the militants and avoid more violence.
After the talks yesterday, one Indian official said of the idea of posting electronic sensors along the front line in Kashmir: "We're evaluating U.S. and Israeli sensors to see what's good for us. Anything we can do to make infiltration more costly we will be willing to do."
India made clear yesterday that it will also be watching the dismantling of camps in Kashmir. It estimates there are 60 to 70 such camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir - and the government's position is that there will be no permanent end to attacks emanating from Pakistani territory until the camps have been demolished.