In the second aerial skirmish in two days over the Indo-Pakistani border, Pakistan fired surface-to-air missiles toward a group of Indian military aircraft, including three helicopters flying journalists to the site where India shot down a Pakistani plane on Tuesday.
Pakistan's military had placed surface-to-air missiles along the border near the site and the country's top security officials called for heightened military preparedness, while India rejected a Pakistani demand that it apologize for downing the naval reconnaissance plane, which killed 16 people.
There were no casualties in today's encounter, but the tit-for-tat incidents strained already tense relations between the two neighbors and appeared to dash any hopes they would resume bilateral negotiations on a variety of issues any time soon.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars in 52 years, and each tested nuclear weapons last year; recently, the two countries concluded an eight-week border clash in the mountains of India's Kashmir state that involved the heaviest fighting between them in nearly three decades. More than 500 Indian troops and Pakistani-based guerrillas died before Pakistan withdrew support for the intruders in July.
Coming on the heels of that conflict, this week's air encounters at the other end of the Indo-Pakistani border have heightened concerns here and abroad about the possibility of full-scale conflict between the two new nuclear powers.
The Clinton administration said it is "deeply concerned" and urged both nations to use "restraint and dialogue" to resolve their differences. "Hopefully, both sides will see that neither has anything to gain by an escalation of this conflict and that reason and cooler heads will prevail," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.
He added that "it's hard to be optimistic at this stage" that the two countries will resume amicable dialogue. "If anything, today's events are an indication that we are going in the wrong direction," he said.
In the wake of India's downing of the French-made Pakistani Dassault-Breguet Atlantique aircraft, Pakistan not only moved missile batteries to the border but also conducted defensive air maneuvers in the border area, a region of marshes and creeks subject to competing claims by the two countries.
In Islamabad today, officials at a high-level national security meeting called for "an advanced state of preparedness" and said that any Indian aggression would be met with a "befitting response." Sources said they did not advocate any aggressive action against India but that they played down any prospect of a resumption of talks with India on a number of mutual grievances--including the future of Kashmir, parts of which both countries claim.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz today demanded an apology from India for shooting down the Atlantique, which officials continued to insist was unarmed and conducting a routine training mission within Pakistani airspace. But Indian officials refused to apologize and reiterated their claim that the aircraft had entered Indian airspace on an intelligence-gathering mission. They said it had been intercepted by two Indian fighter planes, warned repeatedly to land and was shot down only after ignoring the requests.
"It seems very curious that a plane on a training flight should be so close to the border," said R.S. Jassal, India's Foreign Ministry spokesman. He called the flight a "provocative act" that followed a "pattern of hostile surveillance actions" by Pakistan in the past year. He said India's reaction was a "purely military response to an intrusion by a military aircraft."
Indian officials, who said the Atlantique can carry bombs and missiles, alleged that Pakistani military planes have violated Indian airspace at least 50 times since January but that none had been intercepted or fired upon before Tuesday's incident. Independent defense experts here said the Atlantique was probably probing India's air defense system in the border area, but they cautioned that this does not mean Pakistan was preparing an attack.
"I wouldn't conclude they are planning anything," said Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies and a former Indian air force officer. "I hope we will be sensible too and keep firm control on our response. There is a lot of bitterness on both sides now."
A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said, however, that "there are some signs" that both India and Pakistan are making preparations for further conflict "and they're not being very discreet about them. Both India and Pakistan have indicated which of their military forces have gone on higher alert: Both air forces have gone on higher alert, and the Indian navy has gone on higher alert."
"You have an incident, and the potential for escalation of military conflict is always present," the official said. "And we here are very concerned about that potential." The official noted that both countries' independence celebrations are approaching--Aug. 14 in Pakistan and Aug. 15 in India--and that nationalist sentiments will likely run high. "I would see that as a critical time," the official said. "It's a dicey time to watch."
In describing this afternoon's incident, Pakistani officials asserted that two Indian jets intruded into Pakistani airspace near the Atlantique wreckage site. They said Pakistani antiaircraft batteries fired missiles toward the planes but that none was hit. They said they had no knowledge of any Indian helicopters in the vicinity.
But Indian military officials and journalists traveling in a convoy of three helicopters to the crash site said that one helicopter was nearly hit by a missile fired from across the border before the copter dove to avoid being hit. The helicopters then returned safely to a nearby Indian air base.
Indian Group Capt. P.S. Banghu, an air force officer accompanying the journalists, said the passengers saw a flash and a puff of smoke in the air, which he said "strongly indicated" that Pakistan had fired a missile toward the aircraft. Banghu confirmed that Indian MiG-29 fighter planes were patrolling the area to provide cover for the helicopters, but he said they were several miles farther away from the border.
In New Delhi, meanwhile, officials took pains to show that the Atlantique had crashed about seven miles inside India. They said most of the wreckage fell in Indian territory but that some could have fallen into Pakistan because it was scattered over a wide area. Pakistani officials insisted nevertheless that the plane had been shot down at least a mile inside Pakistan.
The State Department's Rubin noted that India and Pakistan could avoid such incidents by observing their April 1991 agreement to avoid flying military or reconnaissance aircraft within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of their common border without giving the other notice.
Relations between Pakistan and India were strained to their greatest extent in nearly 30 years earlier this summer, as Indian troops battled Pakistani-based guerrillas who invaded a mountainous border area at Kargil in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The intruders, who Pakistan insisted were Kashmiri Islamic rebels, eventually withdrew after the Clinton administration brought pressure on Pakistan.
Since that conflict ended, violence has erupted in populated areas of Indian Kashmir, where armed insurgents have attacked several military installations and killed more than 20 people.
On Kashmir's northeastern edge, meanwhile, Indian and Pakistani troops have been fighting since the early 1980s for control of Siachen Glacier--at 20,000 feet the highest battlefield in the world. Today, India said its troops had driven back attacks by Pakistani forces there and had killed five Pakistani soldiers. There was no immediate comment from Pakistan.
Constable reported from New Delhi; Khan reported from Karachi, Pakistan. Staff writers Steven Mufson and Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.