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    Pakistan group protests hijack innocence


    By Raja Asghar

    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A guerrilla group fighting India's rule of Kashmir has rejected a U.S. official report that said it was backed by Pakistani authorities and linked to gunmen who hijacked an Indian airliner last month.

    "Both things are wrong, these are mere allegations against us," Harkat-ul- Mujahideen group leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil told Reuters in an interview.

    "Neither are we involved in the hijacking of the plane ... nor we are supported by (Pakistani) agencies here," said Khalil, whose Islamic militant group is one of several engaged in a 10-year revolt against Indian in the disputed Himalayan region.

    A U.S. official said in Washington on Tuesday the United States had credible evidence the five hijackers were from Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and that the group received some support from the Pakistani government.

    But U.S. President Bill Clinton said Washington did not believe Islamabad was culpable in the incident, which has sparked fresh tensions between arch-rivals India and Pakistan.

    Khalil said his group was engaged only in what he called jihad (holy war) against Indian rule over about 45 percent of Kashmir and called allegations of links with the hijacking "mere Indian propaganda".

    DENIES BIN LADEN-CHECHEN LINK

    He also denied any link between his group with Saudi-born terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, who is hiding in Afghanistan and is wanted by Washington to stand trial over the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa which killed more than 200.

    Khalil also dismissed allegations among Central Asian diplomats of links with militants in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.

    "Harkat's circle of activities is (Indian) occupied Kashmir and it has no military activity anywhere else in the world."

    Khalil said India was targeting Harkat because the group was causing most damage to Indian forces in Kashmir. "India has failed to crush our activities (in Kashmir) and now it wants to crush us on a diplomatic level by propaganda.

    "It is India's vain imagination."

    Pakistan controls just over a third of Kashmir, over which it fought two of its three wars with India since the two countries' independence from Britain in 1947. China holds the rest.

    Washington has put Harkat on a list of "foreign terrorist organisations" barred from receiving any funds in the country or visas for its members, and wants Pakistan to crack down on the group.

    HOPES FOR U.S. REVIEW

    Khalil accused Washington of being under Indian propaganda influence.

    "It (America) is repeatedly accusing us but has not so far provided any proof," he said. "We can't become terrorist just because America says so... In this manner much of the world also calls America terrorist."

    Asked if he feared Pakistan's military government would ban Harkat, Khalil said: "If justice is done, it will not happen. And I am sure America will also review its decision because there is no truth in the American allegation."

    India says it has evidence that the Pakistani government helped in the eight-day Indian Airlines hijacking, which ended on December 31 in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, when hijackers freed 155 hostages in exchange for India's release of three members of Harkat ul-Mujahideen.

    India's accusations against Pakistan came up when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth visited Islamabad last week with Michael Sheehan, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism.

    In talks with Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, U.S. officials asked him to cut off support for Harkat and other militant groups active in Kashmir.


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