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Hoax that could have triggered war with Pak

Nuclear-armed Pakistan was put on 'high alert' last weekend and was eyeing India for possible signs of military aggression, after a threatening call made to President Zardari by someone from Delhi posing as Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Zaffar Abbas reports. Listen audio

world Updated: Dec 07, 2008 16:50 IST
Zaffar Abbas

Nuclear-armed Pakistan was put on ‘high alert’ last weekend and was eyeing India for possible signs of military aggression, after a threatening call made to President Asif Ali Zardari by someone from Delhi posing as Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Whether it was mere mischief or a sinister move by someone in the external affairs ministry, or if the call came from within Pakistan, remains unclear. But to some world leaders, the probability of an accidental war appeared high.

It started on Friday, November 28. Because of the tension over the Mumbai carnage, senior members of the presidential staff decided to bypass standard procedures, including verification of the caller, and transferred the call to Zardari. The caller introduced himself as Mukherjee and threatened military action if Islamabad failed to act against the supposed perpetrators of the Mumbai killings.

Many in the Presidency were convinced that the Indians were preparing for war. Immediately, intense diplomatic and security activity started in Islamabad. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was asked to return to the capital from Lahore, and a special plane (the air force chief’s) was sent to Delhi to bring back Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi early on November 29 even though he was booked to return by a PIA flight the same evening.

Some Pakistani officials briefed a few mediapersons on Saturday afternoon about the call. They also talked of Delhi putting its air force on “high alert”. One official announced the possibility of shifting troops from its border with Afghanistan to its frontier with India.

Sources said the Pakistan air force was at the highest alert. Citizens of Rawalpindi may have noticed fighter jets screaming overhead, but none would have known that the planes were mounting patrols with live ammunition. A senior official refused to call it a panic decision. “War may not have been imminent, but it wasn’t possible to take any chances,” he said.

Intense diplomatic efforts had started by then. Calls were made from Islamabad to top officials in Washington, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called Mukherjee and others in India to cool temperatures.

(This is an excerpted version of a story that appeared in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn on Saturday)