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US, UK special forces seek Laden in Kashmir, India denies

New Delhi: Indian Defence Ministry described as 'rubbish' a British newspaper report on 23 Feb. that American and British elite troops are in the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir hunting for al-Qaeda militants including Osama bin Laden. 

"There is no question of allowing American or British or any foreign troops into J&K. The report is totally incorrect and baseless," an Indian Defence Ministry spokesman said here. However, he refused to comment on whether American and British forces could be operating in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. 

A report in the London Daily Telegraph said today that a 40-member team of US Delta Force and British Special Air Service (SAS) is conducting an operation in the Indian part of Kashmir in a bid to hunt down Bin Laden who is being protected by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) militant outfit, an incarnation of Harkatul Ansar which was formed with CIA help to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan in early 1980s.

In fact it was India which, in a bid to embarrass Pakistan, claimed last month that it believed Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were now sneaking into Kashmir.

The Telegraph report filed by Michael Smith, the paper's defence correspondent, said that 

the US-UK force started hunting for Osama bin Laden in the Indian state of Kashmir after intelligence reports stated that he had sought the protection of an extremist Islamic group. 

The report added that the decision to send in British special forces followed the British Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair's visit to India and Pakistan last month. That visit was followed almost immediately by a visit to both countries by Colin Powell, US secretary of state. It was at about that time that the Indian intelligence told the CIA that they believed Bin Laden was hiding in the Himalayan mountains in Kashmir, protected by the HuM, the British newspaper said.

The HuM, whose sphere of operations is believed to sprawl across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, is believed to have smuggled Ben Laden into one of many remote areas that are nearly impossible for the Indian army to police.

According to the British newspaper, the hunt is employing a range of high-tech devices. A spy satellite above the Indian Ocean operated jointly by American and British intelligence agencies is being used to monitor any communications between Bin Laden and other members of Al-Qaeda. Other satellites capable of using infra-red imaging to detect the movement of humans in the snow of the remote Himalayan passes are also looking for Bin Laden. 

The paper quoted a senior defence source, who recently returned from the region, as saying that the SAS troopers were "acting in an advisory role" for Indian Army special forces. It added that the SAS has been given strict orders to stay clear of any firefights and to merely collect intelligence.

The paper quoted another source as saying that the team was mounting "one of the most technical covert operations of the war" to pinpoint any activity by members of the militant group. "He knows we are not going to start bombing the area or sending in the Marines, but there are lots of other things we can do and if he is alive he is definitely not safe," the source said.

Bin Laden has not been seen since shortly before US and British Special Forces entered Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan last November.

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