ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Nuclear-armed Pakistan put its forces on high alert after a hoax caller pretending to be India’s foreign minister spoke to President Asif Ali Zardari in a threatening manner on November 28, two days after the militant attacks on Mumbai began, the Dawn newspaper reported on Saturday.
“It’s true,” a diplomat with knowledge of the exchanges told Reuters when asked whether the newspaper report was correct.
The caller ignored Zardari’s conciliatory language and directly threatened to take military action if Pakistan failed to act immediately against the supposed perpetrators of the slaughter in Mumbai.
Throughout the next 24 hours Pakistan’s air force was put on “highest alert” as the military watched anxiously for any sign of Indian aggression, the report said.
A senior Pakistani government official told Reuters they were checking the Dawn report. Zardari is currently on an official visit to Turkey.
Tensions have been running high since India blamed Islamist militants based in Pakistan for the three-day rampage in the financial capital last week that killed 171 people.
“War may not have been imminent, but it was not possible to take any chances,” Dawn quoted a senior Pakistani official as saying.
The caller was put through to Zardari because some senior members of the presidential staff decided to bypass standard procedures, including verification of the caller and involvement of diplomatic missions.
Dawn reported that the caller, posing as Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, also tried to telephone U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but due to specific checks by U.S. officials the call was not put through.
The episode triggered intense international diplomacy, with some world leaders fearing India and Pakistan could slip into an accidental war, the newspaper said, sourcing its report to unnamed diplomatic, political and security officials.
The two countries, which both became nuclear weapons states in 1998, went to the brink of war in 2002 following a militant attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.
According to Dawn, Rice called Mukherjee in the middle of the night to ask why he had adopted such athreatening tone, but he assured her that he never spoke to Zardari.
Mukherjee said his discussions with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who had been in New Delhi that day, had been conducted in a cordial manner.
Thereafter there were frantic phone calls between Washington, Islamabad and New Delhi to cool the temperature and by Saturday evening on November 29, calm had been restored.
It was during the hours of uncertainty that the Pakistani government decided to rescind its original offer to send the head of its Inter-Services Intelligence agency to New Delhi to help India in its investigation into the Mumbai attacks.
Senior Pakistani security officers referred to the aggressive tone taken by the Indian foreign minister in a briefing to journalists on November 29.
They warned, in a clear message to the United States, that if Pakistan felt threatened it would move tens of thousands of troops from the Afghan border, where they are fighting Taliban and al Qaeda militants, to the Indian border and abandon the war on terrorism.
There was an investigation by both sides to determine who made the call, and it remains unclear whether it was made from India or Pakistan, the newspaper said.
Pakistani officials said the caller ID was a Delhi number, and some believe the call was made from India’s External Affair’s Ministry, but Indian officials have denied this to U.S. counterparts and maintained that the number could have been manipulated, Dawn reported.
Indian and U.S. officials suspect the Lashkar-e-Taiba group was behind the Mumbai attack.
The jihadi organization, which has been fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, has had ties with Pakistani intelligence in the past, and members have also forged links with al Qaeda in recent years, according to security analysts.
Editing by Jerry Norton