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Finger at Pakistan rebels in murder

- Haqqani group killed Susmita: Kabul
Susmita Banerjee

New Delhi, Sept. 10: Militants from the Pakistan-backed Haqqani terror network killed Susmita Banerjee last Wednesday, Afghanistan has told India in conclusions that threaten to turn the Calcutta author’s murder into the latest diplomatic flashpoint between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Police in southeast Afghanistan’s Paktika province where Susmita was killed had initially suspected a Taliban hand. But yesterday, they arrested two men belonging to the Haqqani network who have confessed to the murder, Afghan officials have told Indian ambassador Amar Sinha.

New Delhi blames the Haqqani network for multiple attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan, including the two strikes on its Kabul embassy that killed over 70 people.

“We are verifying on our own what we have been told by Afghanistan,” a senior diplomat here told The Telegraph. “If it’s true, that establishes a Pakistan link that we simply cannot ignore.”

Susmita, whose memoirs of her marital life in Afghanistan from 1988 till 1995 and subsequent escape from the Taliban had inspired a Bollywood film, had returned last January to Afghanistan after 17 years in Calcutta.

She had resumed work as an untrained medical worker on the outskirts of Paktika’s capital Sharana, where she lived with her Afghan husband Jaanbaaz Khan and his extended family. Susmita had met Jaanbaaz in 1986 in Calcutta, where he worked as a moneylender.

The arrested men have indicated during interrogation that they killed Susmita on orders from the Haqqani network’s provincial commanders, Paktika governor Mohibullah Samim and the province’s police chief, Dawlat Khan Zadran, told the Indian mission in Kabul today.

Susmita was killed apparently because of the portrayal of Taliban brutality in her 1998 book Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (A Kabuliwala’s Bengali wife).

Zadran said the accused had also hinted that Susmita’s Indian identity added to her target value for the Haqqanis, who are closely affiliated to the Taliban and, according to some intelligence agencies, to al Qaida.

Islamabad, whom New Delhi accuses of sponsoring the Haqqanis, has frequently charged India’s missions in Kandahar and Jalalabad — the big city closest to Sharana — with fomenting separatist movements in Pakistan’s troubled southwestern province of Baluchistan.

As the only Indian in the region — most other Indians in Afghanistan are in the cities or are working on infrastructure projects — Susmita may have sparked suspicion, Zadran has told Indian officials.

For India, establishing whether Susmita’s murder was ordered locally by militant commanders or had the blessings of officials in Pakistan is critical at a time it is trying to re-engage with Islamabad after recent border tensions.

India has accused the Haqqanis in the past of kidnapping its engineers working on infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. India, the US and Afghanistan all concluded that the Haqqanis were responsible for the 2008 and 2009 terror attacks on India’s embassy in Kabul.

New Delhi believes these attacks are part of Pakistan’s strategy to reassert its influence in Afghanistan once US-led forces withdraw from the country next year.

“We are in touch with the police chief (Zadran) who has told us he is trying his best to get to the bottom of this crime at the earliest,” external affairs ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said.

He added that the ministry had spoken to the Bengal government over its demand that Susmita’s remains be returned to India. This, Akbaruddin said, is not possible because her husband has already buried her and, as her next of kin, has the legal right to decide on her remains.