Friday, October 16, 2009

'India vulnerable to more Mumbai-like attacks

India remains vulnerable to a Mumbai-style militant attack because neighbouring Pakistan is struggling to rein in the Islamist groups blamed for last year's deadly assault, Home Minister P Chidambaram said on Thursday.

As India prepares for the first anniversary of the Mumbai raids that killed 166 people and foreign intelligence reports warn of possible new plots, Chidambaram warned any new attack would be met with a "swift and decisive" response.

Two plush hotels and a Jewish centre were among the targets attacked by 10 gunmen last November. India blamed Pakistani nationals and tensions rose between the two nuclear-powered nations.

"My assessment of the vulnerability is that it has remained the same since 26/11," Chidambaram said in a rare interview, referring to the raids on November 26. "It has not diminished nor has it enhanced."

With India spending millions on new security measures, from commando hubs in cities to navy patrols and better intelligence gathering, the Home Minister added that India had learnt its lesson.

"Our capacity to deal with it (the terrorist threat) has increased significantly."

Preventing new attacks is key to regional stability.

Former finance minister Chidambaram was appointed to India's top security post after criticism that the Congress party-led Government failed to prevent the gunmen from rampaging for nearly three days through India's financial hub.

Commando units finally killed all but one of the attackers, who was subsequently arrested by the authorities.

Despite pressure for military action against Pakistan last November, the Indians responded with a diplomatic offensive.

A second attack would severely test its self-restraint.

"If there is another terror threat or a terror attack of the kind we saw in 26/11, India's response will be swift and decisive," Chidambaram said.

Can Pakistan Really Act?

New Delhi has criticised Islamabad for not acting fully against the alleged masterminds of the Mumbai attacks. Indians see the hand of Pakistani intelligence and military, hostile to any rapprochement with old foe India, behind the raids.

India wants Pakistan to jail Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Toiba militant group blamed for the attacks, before it resumes a peace process broken off last year.

In the last year Saeed has been arrested, freed and most recently put under virtual house arrest, after international pressure on the Islamabad government.

"Even if they wish to take action against the masterminds of 26/11, they (the Pakistan government ) perhaps do not have the capacity to take action," Chidambaram said.

"That incapacity could encourage some wild elements, some rogue elements, to become adventurous," he added.

"I'm sure they're planning (more attacks), but to what extent there is overt state support I cannot say ... my guess is that state support is not there to the degree it was there in 2008."

Foreign intelligence reports led one senior Australian politician, Victorian state Premier John Brumby, to cancel an official trip to Mumbai. In September, a television report in Israel said Jerusalem had "pinpoint" intelligence about Pakistani militants attacking India in the weeks ahead.

Chidambaram played down the reports, repeating that risk levels remained the same. "There is nothing markedly different to what we gather every day," the minister said, referring to intelligence reports.

On Thursday, militants launched a string of attacks in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab - which borders India - and in the troubled northwest, killing at least 31 people after a week of violence in which more than 100 people died.

"What happened today is a matter of great concern," he said.

Before Mumbai in 2008, India was hit by bombings in markets and mosques across many cities that left hundreds dead.

"I worry about it every day. I think our intelligence is better. I think we've been able to prevent a large number of potential attacks, and maybe been lucky too," Chidambaram stated.