Indian Minister Says Pakistan Is Using Hoax As Distraction

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 8, 2008

NEW DELHI, Dec. 7 -- India's foreign minister accused Pakistan on Sunday of trying to deflect attention from the role of its citizens in last month's terrorist attacks in Mumbai by leaking word of a hoax phone call to the Pakistani president's office that reportedly forced its air force to go on high alert.

The episode underscored the high level of tension that remains between the two nuclear-armed nations nearly two weeks after the attacks, as India continues to charge that a terrorist group with past ties to the Pakistani government was responsible and Pakistan insists that it was not involved.

During the call, allegedly made Nov. 28 as the attacks were still unfolding, the caller is said to have identified himself as Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and threatened that India would undertake military action unless Pakistan acted against the attackers. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's information and broadcasting minister, said in a statement that the call came from "a verified official phone number of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs." The call reportedly prompted Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to put the air force on high alert.

News of the call was first reported in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn over the weekend and was picked up by other Pakistani media. On Sunday, Mukherjee released a statement saying that he had learned of the call from "third countries" and that the call was a hoax.

"We immediately clarified to those friends, and we also made it clear to the Pakistan authorities, that I had made no such telephone call," Mukherjee said. He added that it is "worrying that a neighboring state might even consider acting on the basis of such a hoax call, try to give it credibility with other states, and confuse the public by releasing the story in part."

Ten gunmen attacked Mumbai on Nov. 26, killing 171 people and injuring more than 230 in strikes on two luxury hotels, a Jewish prayer center, a restaurant, a train station and other sites. Indian officials have said that the gunmen were of Pakistani origin, that they came by boat from Karachi and that they belonged to the Pakistan-based outlawed militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba. Members of the group were blamed for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament that brought the two longtime foes to the brink of a fourth war.

Islamabad has demanded evidence of the purported Pakistani link to the Mumbai attacks but has promised to assist New Delhi in the investigation.

The attacks have given rise to a new war of words between the two neighbors, straining an ongoing peace process.

The controversy over the hoax call has led to questions over how the caller managed to bypass the protocol that governs telephone calls among world leaders and top diplomats.

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