Pakistan and India’s tit-for-tat expulsion of officials have sparked fears that both countries could temporarily recall their high commissioners and scale down their presence in each others’ capitals.
Officials in Islamabad also hinted at a reduction in official exchanges and visits to India, but sources in New Delhi have downplayed the reports.
Pakistan has confirmed it will attend the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan in the Indian city of Amritsar in December, but almost all other engagements have been put on hold.
Reports in the Pakistani media suggested a fresh slide in ties caused by the expulsion and recall of diplomats and officials might lead to a scaling down of the strength of diplomatic staff by the two neighbours.
However, Indian government sources said reports about the scaling down of the strength of the mission in Islamabad were “fabricated”. A government source said: “We haven’t taken any such decision yet.”
On Friday, junior minister for health services Saira Afzal Tarar said Pakistan will stay away from a global tobacco control conference in India next week. “It’s a very important meeting on tobacco, but our visit doesn’t appear feasible due to ongoing tensions,” she told Reuters.
Families of Pakistani diplomats stationed in New Delhi too may be evacuated soon, officials said. “It is slowly moving towards a lockdown,” said an official who did not wish to be named.
The last time New Delhi recalled its envoy to Islamabad was in December 2001 following an attack on its Parliament that was blamed on Pakistan-based terror groups.
Subsequently, India asked the Pakistani high commissioner to leave in May 2002. Full diplomatic ties were restored in 2003.
The latest row started after Mehmood Akhtar, a staffer of the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi, was arrested and later expelled on charges of espionage. A video of Akhtar’s questioning showed him purportedly naming other officials who were part of an alleged spying ring.
Pakistan, which said Akhtar’s statement was extracted through “coercive means”, withdrew six officials who were named in media reports, jeopardising their security.
In a tit-for-tat move, a media leak accused eight officials of the Indian high commission in Islamabad of being involved in spying and “subversive activities”. Many newspapers and TV channels revealed the names and flashed photos of these officials.
India condemned the media leak and officials indicated the eight officials would have to be withdrawn because of security concerns.
At a weekly news briefing, Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria too contended the eight Indian officials belonged to intelligence agencies and alleged they were involved in “coordinating terrorist and subversive activities”.
Zakaria said India had violated diplomatic norms and the code of conduct for relations between two sovereign states.
(With inputs from Jayanth Jacob)