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World Perspective | ASIA

Spy Stories Fuel Fears of War on Subcontinent

Reports concerning newly nuclear Pakistan, India are dismissed as disinformation. But some warn that they may have cataclysmic consequences.

July 04, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — And now for the news:

Five Pakistani nuclear scientists defect to the West, alleging that their military commanders have targeted Indian cities and strategic installations for preemptive nuclear strikes.

"Nonsense," the Pakistani government declares, forcefully denying reports splashed across front pages in India and elsewhere this week. In New Delhi, Indian officials express disbelief, suggesting that it is part of a deliberate "disinformation" campaign by Western intelligence agencies to cast both nations as irresponsible nuclear states.

And in Washington, U.S. officials say they are investigating the story after one of the alleged scientists, Iftikhar Chaudhry Khan, appears at a news conference in New York, seeking asylum. By the end of the week, Pakistan officially labels the defections as a hoax, and Khan's father says his son is in fact an accountant.

But the alleged defections were among several tales widely reported here this week that Indian analysts say foreshadow an almost inevitable game of spy vs. spy--with potentially cataclysmic implications for the newly nuclear subcontinent.

As the world powers seek to avert an all-out nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan just weeks after both nations stunned the world with atomic bomb tests, other stories making news here include:

* A maverick Indian lawmaker's announcement that Libya is secretly seeking nuclear weapons technology from New Delhi, offering in return a treasure trove of financial aid to counter the economic sanctions India invited with its tests. The Indian government offers no comment on the report, which independent analysts say was fabricated by the lawmaker to embarrass India's ruling party.

* A prominent Indian daily quoting "independent" spy-watchers in Washington as saying the CIA is recruiting new agents and beefing up operations in India and Pakistan after failing to detect preparations for India's nuclear tests. The U.S. Embassy here won't comment.

Reflecting on the spate of cloak-and-dagger reports, Indian analysts said they come as no surprise in a region that has grown accustomed to clandestine Cold War operations by outside powers--and by each other--in past decades.

'Delhi has always been one of the centers for espionage," said political analyst Amitabh Mattoo, who teaches international relations at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Because of its geographic location, there were Russian eavesdroppers, there were China eavesdroppers.

"It used to be a listening post, but now, after these tests, it's important in itself," he said.

Mattoo and other analysts said this week's spy stories appeared to be part of disinformation campaigns that they expect to intensify.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg, and to separate the wheat from the chaff is the task of really good intelligence and strategic analysts," Mattoo said. "Getting it right is not a game now. For us, it's survival.

"If you have people acting on the basis of wrong information and wrong intelligence, the consequences are catastrophic," he said. "If you have two nuclear rivals reacting to disinformation, the result could be a holocaust on the subcontinent."

Most analysts here concluded that, so far, the spy stories appear to be relatively harmless.

The Pakistani defector story, which was leaked in London before Khan surfaced in New York, "was not so much for the consumption of India," said retired Indian Brig. Gen. Vijai K. Nair, who heads a strategic studies forum in New Delhi. "It appears to be a finely orchestrated attempt to keep the issue on the international table."

Despite the headlines, the defector story appeared to draw only passing interest here. In fact, most of this week's news in India demonstrated that the focus of its nearly 1 billion people finally has begun to shift from the nuclear issue to more routine crises of the day.

The annual monsoon rains arrived, flooding Bombay and New Delhi, paralyzing transportation, killing more than half a dozen people and dominating the evening broadcasts.

And in a nation that proudly attributes its nuclear program to the work of its own scientists, power outages continued to plague the capital, and traffic signals failed in the monsoon floods.

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