Will India and Pakistan talks survive Pune bombing?

Saturday's bombing of the German bakery in Pune will test the resolve of Indian leaders to restart talks with Pakistan later this month. And does American David Headley have a connection to the Pune bombing, ask investigators.

By , Correspondent

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    Policemen sift wreckage the day after Saturday's bombing of a German cafe in Pune, India. The bombing killed nine and wounded 57 in the first terrorist attack in India since the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
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The powerful bomb explosion that tore through a popular cafe Saturday here in western India, claimed nine lives – and will test the resolve of India and Pakistan to hold peace talks.

The two nations were set to restart high-level bilateral talks in New Delhi later this month.

The bomb, believed to be left in a backpack under a table in the "German Bakery" in Pune, frequented by locals as well as foreigners, wounded 57 people. It is the first major terror assault on the country since the Mumbai terror attacks on Nov. 26, 2008, well known locally as 26/11.

Indian investigators are looking into the possibility of the involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group it blames for orchestrating 26/11.

The site of the blast – in a leafy, upscale suburb called Koregaon Park – was one of the areas of Pune surveyed before 26/11 by David Headley, an American terror suspect of Pakistani origin currently in a Chicago jail, awaiting trial. In December, Mr. Headley was charged with scouting bombing targets in India in connection with the Mumbai attacks, and for providing support to LeT.

The German Bakery, completely ravaged by the latest bombing, was located in close to what Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s home minister, described as “soft targets” for potential bombings: Osho’s Ashram, a luxury yoga and meditation resort, and Chabad House, a Jewish community center popular among Israeli citizens.

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The Indian government is demanding from Washington that it be given access to Headley. "The Government of India is pursuing the case of access to Headley," Mr. Chidambaram said. But he added: "It is tied up with legal problems. He is being indicted by a grand jury in Chicago."

Pakistani or Indian terrorists?

But this bombing, some investigators say, also bears the signature of the Indian Mujahideen, a homegrown Islamic terrorist group blamed for planting bombs in a number of Indian cities before 26/11.

“But even if that were true,” says Ajit Doval, the former director of the Intelligence Bureau of India, “you must bear in mind that the Indian Mujahideen is the offshoot of trans-border terrorist operations launched against India.”

At a rally in Islamabad in early February, Abdur Rehman Makki, the deputy chief of the Jammat-ud-Dawa, a charitable organization said to be a front for the LeT, specifically warned that cities such as Pune, an Indian town abutting Mumbai well known for its prosperous IT and auto sectors, could be targeted by terrorists.

Jihadists interested only in the “liberation of Kashmir” saw Indian cities like “Delhi, Pune, Kanpur” as fair targets, he said at the rally, according to quotes obtained by a Pakistan-based correspondent for The Hindu, a national Indian daily.

Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, who visited India last month, also warned that Pakistan-based militants with links to Al Qaeda were plotting another Mumbai-style terror assault in India, with the aim of igniting a war between the nuclear rivals.

Mr. Gates said that if another terrorist attack was launched, India may not show the restraint with Pakistan that it did after 26/11.

Will bombing derail peace talks?

The Pune bakery bombing occurred just two days after India and Pakistan, which suspended talks after 26/11, announced that their foreign secretaries would meet in India for a fresh round of negotiations on Feb. 25.

“The timing of the first major act of terrorism since 26/11 strongly indicates a likely motive: to ensure the forthcoming dialogue between India and Pakistan is sabotaged even before it has a chance to get off the ground,” said Siddharth Vardarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu.

S.M. Krishna, India’s external affairs minister, said the fate of the forthcoming talks hinged on the revelations of the forensic investigations of the bombing.

“We will look at the investigational reports and then decide on talks,” he told Indian reporters grimly. “India will not be cowed down by terrorism.”

For decades, Indo-Pak relations have remained hostage to the threat of terrorism.

India and Pakistan have gone through four rounds of peace talks, achieving modest gains on trade agreements and limited confidence building measures. The fifth round was underway when the Mumbai attacks occurred. The process stalled indefinitely after those attacks.

After months of heightened tensions, in July last year there was a slight thaw in the frosty Indo-Pak relations after both countries decided to restart the dialogue process.

After a meeting and friendly handshakes in Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort, the leaders of both countries vowed to insulate the dialogue process from terrorism, which has often scuttled negotiations in the past. But the dialogue has barely inched forward, in large part because India blames Pakistan slow progress in apprehending LeT operatives involved in the Mumbai attacks.

After the Pune attacks, India’s main opposition party was quick to step up pressure on the government to abandon the upcoming round of talks.

“Terror and talks cannot co-exist. When terror threatens India, then not talking is also a legitimate diplomatic option,” said Arun Jaitley, a spokesperson for the opposition Bharatiya Janta Party. “The composite dialogue cannot proceed.”

But Mr. Doval says the Pune bombings make it imperative for India to talk to Pakistan, precisely to rebuff terrorist organizations that don’t favor détente between both countries.

“[Both countries] should definitely meet,” he says. “But they should talk about terrorism and terrorism alone. No meaningful progress on other outstanding issues can happen until that issue is first sorted.”

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