Pakistan's president suggested today that he was ready to use nuclear weapons earlier this year if Indian forces crossed the border, but his government backed off the assertion, saying he never specifically mentioned atomic weapons.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf's comments appeared to confirm fears, voiced at the time, that the world was close to witnessing its first bilateral nuclear war. India also possesses nuclear arms, and the situation so worried Washington at the time -- just as Pakistan had become a key ally in the war on terrorism -- that it warned Americans to leave India.
The danger point came when India and Pakistan sent troops to their border after a deadly attack on the Indian Parliament last December. New Delhi accused Islamabad of helping to organize the assault, in which 14 people were killed, while Pakistan denied any role.
"I personally conveyed messages to [Indian] Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee through every international leader who came to Pakistan that if Indian troops moved a single step" across the disputed frontier, "they should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan," he told Pakistani air force veterans. However, an army spokesman, Gen. Rashid Qureshi, said later that the president's mention of nonconventional war was not a reference to the use of nuclear weapons.
Qureshi said Musharraf meant that the people of Pakistan together with the conventional army would "neutralize the enemy's offensive. Nowhere did he say that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons at all."
The two nations have fought three wars in 50 years, and it seemed last winter that another was imminent, until intensive international diplomacy brought the neighbors back from the brink.
Tensions eased recently as both sides said they were stepping back from their war footing. After massing more than a million troops along their common border, India announced in October that it had begun pulling back its forces. Last month Pakistan said it was doing the same.