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Pakistani Jets Scramble As India Hardens Tone
All Options Open, Minister Says in New Delhi

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NEW DELHI, Dec. 22 -- In signs of growing regional tension since the Mumbai attacks last month, Pakistan scrambled fighter jets over several of its larger cities Monday, and India's foreign minister told a gathering of Indian diplomats in New Delhi that the country is keeping all its options open to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice.

"We have so far acted with utmost restraint," Pranab Mukherjee told the more than 120 envoys from posts around the world. But he added, "We will take all measures necessary as we deem fit to deal with the situation."

A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, later called Mukherjee's tough talk "an expression of political will that India will not take this lying down." He added that the option of "precision airstrikes" on terrorist training camps in Pakistan would remain on the table if Islamabad did not act effectively against groups fomenting terrorism against India.

Pakistan has denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 170 people and wounded more than 230.

On Monday, Pakistan put its air force on high alert, with several fighter jets conducting exercises over the capital, Islamabad, as well as Rawalpindi, Lahore and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Offices of newspapers and television channels were inundated with calls from people asking whether the exercises, which caused delays in some civilian flights, were a response to airstrikes by India.

A Pakistani air force spokesman, Commodore Humayun Viqar, said in a statement, "In view of the current environment, PAF has enhanced its vigilance."

The air force's action coincided with the arrival in Islamabad of the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, who met with Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and the head of its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

Mullen thanked both men for their efforts, and the efforts of the Pakistani government, to arrest members of the outlawed Islamist group Lashkar-i-Taiba and other extremist organizations suspected of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, according to his spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby. Mullen also reportedly urged them to support judicial efforts to prosecute the cases fully and transparently.

A Pakistani official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Kiyani told Mullen that Pakistan was trying its best to defuse tension with India.

"We want peace with India, but any aggression will be matched by a befitting response," the official quoted Kiyani as saying.

An Indian official in New Delhi said that the three-day meeting of diplomats had been scheduled before the attacks occurred but that it provided an opportunity for India to work out a diplomatic strategy for pressuring Islamabad to act against terrorist groups.

"Unfortunately, Pakistan's response so far has demonstrated their earlier tendency to resort to a policy of denial and to seek to deflect and shift the blame and responsibility," Mukherjee told the envoys in his opening address. "We have highlighted that the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan has to be dismantled permanently," he added.

Pakistan's government has offered to help in the investigation into the Mumbai attacks but has said that India has not shared any hard evidence about the alleged involvement of Pakistani citizens.

On Monday, however, India's Ministry of External Affairs handed over to Pakistan's acting high commissioner in New Delhi a letter that it said was written by the only surviving Mumbai gunman, Ajmal Amir Kasab, who was captured by Indian police.

"In his letter addressed to the Pakistan High Commission, Kasab has stated that he and the other terrorists killed in the attack were from Pakistan and has sought a meeting with the Pakistan High Commission," according to a written statement from the ministry.

In a background briefing, another senior government official said India is tired of the conflicting signals from Pakistan.

"We hear different voices from different places in Pakistan. Every day, different stories are floated. First we heard that Masood Azhar is arrested, then they say they do not know where he is," he said, referring to one of the fugitives India has demanded that Pakistan hand over. "If Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have been proscribed, then why is their Web site active and operational?" the official added.

An Interpol team also reached Mumbai on Monday. The team has begun seeking information about Kasab and the unclaimed bodies of the nine other gunmen, thought to be of Pakistani origin, who died in the three-day Mumbai siege.

India and Pakistan, longtime nuclear rivals, have fought three wars since the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent in 1947, creating both independent nations. An attack on India's Parliament in 2001 that India blamed on a Pakistan-based Islamist militant group brought the two nations to the brink of war.

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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