After months of denial and equivocation, Pakistan is officially acknowledging what India and the U.S. have long known: that last November's Mumbai terrorism attacks were planned, at least in part, on Pakistani soil. On the same day that U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke concluded a four-day visit to Pakistan, the nation on Thursday announced that it had initiated trial proceedings against eight suspects and arrested most of those involved in the Mumbai massacre. The announcement, tentatively welcomed in India, will be greeted with relief in Washington, which has been working hard to avert a confrontation and to align the governments of India and Pakistan in a common fight against extremism in the region.
"Some part of the conspiracy has taken place in Pakistan," Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday, marking a significant climbdown for the government. Less than two weeks ago, one of Pakistan's most senior diplomats had claimed the opposite. Pakistani officials attribute the change to information turned up by the Federal Investigation Agency, Pakistan's equivalent of the FBI. Drawing on leads furnished last month by New Delhi, Malik laid out a narrative of events that largely concurs with the Indian version. (See pictures of Mumbai in recovery.)
Pakistan's investigation found that the Mumbai gunmen had departed the Pakistani port city of Karachi aboard three inflatable boats. With the help of telephone and bank-transfer records, investigators were able to trace a recovered engine from one of the vessels to a shop in Karachi belonging to Hammad Amin Sadiq. The shopkeeper ambiguously described by Malik as "the main operator" was arrested. From his interrogation, the authorities were able to apprehend three other suspects at two hideouts, one in Karachi, the other two hours away.
Two presumed handlers of the Mumbai shooters are still at large but are to be indicted, together with six men in custody, on charges of "abetting, conspiracy and facilitation" of an act of terrorism. The accused include Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhwi, the alleged mastermind, and Zarar Shah. Both are considered leading members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the banned militant group blamed for the attacks. They were arrested in an earlier crackdown on Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity now banned after being accused of acting as a front group for LeT. (Watch video of Mumbai residents talking about the attacks.)
Underscoring Pakistan's intention to try the suspects, Malik announced that a criminal report had been registered and read its reference number. The Pakistani government is also making a cross-border appeal for further help before beginning prosecutions. A list of 30 questions has been forwarded to New Delhi, including a request for DNA samples of the 10 gunmen, details of their intercepted conversations with handlers in Pakistan and information on a possible Indian connection. There was also a suggestion by Pakistani officials that the two fugitive handlers could be in India.
Islamabad proclaims the steps as proof of its bona fides in cracking down on terrorism. "I think today's announcement reflects our seriousness in bringing the perpetrators to justice," Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, told TIME. "It is a testimony to what we've been saying, that we're serious about the investigation. What was given to us was fairly sketchy but through our own investigations, we've been able to act. The Indian High Commissioner was called in today, and we handed in our investigation. We have shared it with our friends abroad, the European Union, China and the rest. We have some questions post our investigation. We wanted Indian input and help."
India's help was needed to strengthen the government's legal case, Qureshi said. "What they said was not legally tenable," he added, in a reference to the Indian dossier. "We need evidence that can stand up to the test of law." India promised to share whatever information it can with Pakistan. "This is a positive development," the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said of Pakistan's findings. "It remains India's goal to bring the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on Mumbai to book, and to follow this process through to the end."
The shift in tone may not camouflage the substantial differences that remain between the two countries on the issue of militancy, but given Pakistan's stonewalling until now, it will be counted as nothing less than a breakthrough. A steady stream of U.S. and British envoys have pressed Pakistan to act more decisively, while urging restraint on India. Although Qureshi and his colleagues strenuously deny it, it is widely believed that Holbrooke's four-day visit in Pakistan may have coaxed the government into action.
Despite the breakthrough, the Mumbai issue could still reignite tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Cyril Almeida, an editor at Dawn newspaper, warned that tensions could arise over the arrested suspects. "Are they the same people India believes are responsible for the attacks?" Almeida asked.
Long-standing differences could also erupt over the relationship of Pakistan's shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency with militant groups. Malik emphasized on Thursday that the suspects were "non-state actors" a perspective shared by Washington and London. But Shiv Shankar Menon, India's Foreign Secretary, bluntly accused the military-led ISI of involvement. "The perpetrators planned, trained and launched their attacks from Pakistan, and the organizers were and remain clients and creations of the ISI," he told a conference last week in Paris, provoking fury among the Pakistani establishment.
Washington and London have been hoping that Islamabad will seize the crisis as an opportunity to permanently uproot the training camps that were first used by militant proxies of the Pakistani army to stage raids into Indian-administered Kashmir. Qureshi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, insists that this has been done. "Absolutely," he said. "Whatever action needed to be taken has been taken." But his counterparts across the border are yet to be convinced.