A May 15 article misidentified which publication first reported on a former Clinton administration official's account of how Pakistan was preparing to possibly use nuclear weapons in its 1999 conflict with India. It was India Abroad in its May 3 edition, not the Sunday Times of London. (Published 5/17/02)

Pakistan was preparing to possibly fire nuclear weapons during a 1999 border conflict with India, moving the countries closer to nuclear war than was commonly known at the time, according to a new article by President Bill Clinton's chief White House adviser on South Asia.

Bruce O. Riedel, a senior director on the Clinton administration's National Security Council, reports that U.S. intelligence had developed "disturbing evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing their nuclear arsenals for possible deployment." This information came as India was seeking to turn back an incursion by Pakistani-backed forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir, with heavy casualties, and as both sides mobilized for an all-out war.

At a tense July 4 meeting in Blair House, Clinton confronted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with the intelligence, asking him whether he was aware that his military was preparing intermediate-range missiles with nuclear warheads, according to Riedel. He said that Sharif was "taken aback."

Sharif was overthrown three months later by his military chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who commanded all Pakistani military activities and is now a close U.S. ally in the Afghanistan campaign against the al Qaeda network and the Taliban militia.

Riedel's account, confirmed yesterday by other former U.S. officials, indicated that the prospect of nuclear war that year was perhaps greater than at any time since the United States and the Soviet Union faced off during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The article was prepared for the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and was first described by the Sunday Times of London. The account comes as Pakistan and India have again massed troops along their border and as tensions are threatening to escalate between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

Christina B. Rocca, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, opened talks in New Delhi yesterday in a bid to end the standoff, which began in December after a fatal attack on the Indian parliament that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based Muslim guerrillas. The difficulty of Rocca's mission was immediately underscored when gunmen opened fire yesterday on a bus and an Indian army camp in Kashmir, killing at least 30 people.

On Monday, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith told a conference on American-Indian defense trade that the Bush administration was "focused intensely" on the danger posed by the five-month old mobilization by Pakistan and India and the prospect of nuclear war.

The standoff concerns the Bush administration not just because of the possibility of an escalation of the conflict but also because it is constraining the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda militants crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. For several weeks, U.S. officials have been urging Pakistan to attack pockets of al Qaeda militants in semiautonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border. But Pakistan has responded that it cannot do so, in part because it has deployed 80 percent of its army along the border with India.

The conflict three years ago erupted when forces backed by Pakistan seized army positions in the remote mountain area of Kargil on the Indian side of the line that divides Kashmir. Indian troops mounted a furious offensive to retake the heights.

Only a year earlier, both countries had conducted nuclear tests. The new fighting threatened to escalate to an unprecedented level. Riedel said the Clinton administration "confronted the reality of two nuclear-tested states whose missiles could be fired with flight times of three to five minutes from launch to impact." He said one well-informed assessment found that a Pakistani strike with a small bomb against Bombay could kill up to 850,000 people.

Other senior members of Clinton's foreign policy team confirmed Riedel's account that the administration had obtained unsettling intelligence about Pakistan's nuclear preparations.

"It was certainly enough for us to take it very seriously," said Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state. He added that the Kargil crisis "had the potential of going all the way."

Another former official involved in addressing the issue for the Clinton administration said the United States had learned that Pakistan was moving its intermediate-range Ghauri missiles, which were intended to carry nuclear warheads, out of storage and to new locations. He said the movement might have been offensive in nature or might have been intended to protect the missiles by dispersing them in case of a preemptive Indian strike. The official added that he could not remember whether there was other intelligence relating to nuclear preparations.

The disclosure that U.S. officials were concerned about Pakistan's missile program is significant because much of the U.S. analysis of Islamabad's nuclear program has focused on the Pakistanis using bombers to deliver the warheads. Indeed, a former U.S. official familiar with the crisis said Riedel's account seemed accurate except for the suggestion that Pakistan would use missiles rather than bombers.

As tensions over Kargil mounted, Clinton conferred on July 4 with national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and other key aides before meeting the Pakistani prime minister, who had come to Washington on an emergency visit. "The mood was somber," Riedel recalled. "Sandy Berger opened the session by telling the president that this could be the most important foreign policy meeting of his presidency because the stakes could include nuclear war."

At an opening meeting between U.S. and Pakistani officials on July 4, Clinton demanded that Pakistan withdraw its army and allied militia forces from the Indian side of the Line of Control in Kashmir, Riedel said. Most of the officials then left the room, leaving only Clinton, Sharif and Riedel.

"Clinton asked Sharif if he knew how advanced the threat of nuclear war really was? Did Sharif know that his military was preparing their nuclear-tipped missiles. Sharif seemed taken aback and said only that India was probably doing the same," Riedel said. "The president reminded Sharif how close the U.S. and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in 1962 over Cuba. Did Sharif realize that if even one bomb was dropped . . . Sharif finished his sentence and said it would be a catastrophe."

Under intense pressure, Sharif agreed to order a withdrawal from Indian-controlled Kashmir, defusing the conflict and the immediate potential for a nuclear exchange.

But absent a diplomatic breakthrough on Kashmir and other divisive issues, former U.S. officials said the danger of such a cataclysmic war remains.

"Clearly, tensions are increasing as a result of the latest incident in Kashmir," said Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs under Clinton. "Another spark could be set off, and this could become even more dangerous than Kargil if this is not resolved soon."

Officials at Pakistan's embassy said last night that they had no comment on this report.

Then-Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif was reportedly taken aback in 1999 when told of his military's plans.