WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials watched warily Tuesday as nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan moved more combat troops and missiles closer to their shared border and escalated their war of words.
But U.S. officials said the crisis might be defused in coming days because Pakistan appears to have launched a crackdown against several Islamic militant groups, two of which India blames for the attempted suicide bombing of the Parliament in New Delhi two weeks ago.
That attack, which left 14 people dead, led to the latest flare-up of tensions. On Tuesday, U.S. officials confirmed reports from the region that India has shifted short-range missiles, fighter jets and fresh troops closer to Pakistan in recent days and has urged Indian citizens in some border areas to evacuate.
Pakistan has reinforced military emplacements on its eastern border, U.S. officials said, and has moved medium-range missile batteries to five areas along the so-called Line of Control that separates the two neighbors in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
U.S. officials fear the crisis could detract from the American-led search for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan and western Pakistan--or worse, spin out of control and lead to a shooting war or nuclear exchange.
But a senior U.S. official who is monitoring intelligence reports from the area said Tuesday that war did not appear imminent.
"I think we would see a lot more going on if major hostilities were about to break out," he said.
The official, who asked not to be identified as a matter of policy, said the latest mobilization of troops and equipment is "ratcheting up the situation" and has led to a "heightened sense of worry" in Washington.
India and Pakistan have enough troops near the border that an attack "is possible at any time," the official warned. "They don't have to wait for further reinforcements. Something could always spark it."
In particular, he said, U.S. officials are concerned that Pakistan has moved medium-range missile batteries to the sites along the Line of Control. He identified them as Poonch, Balakote, Kerni, Akhmoor-Chickenneck and Unshera.
But he said U.S. intelligence analysts believe that both countries are moving their reinforcements at a sufficiently slow pace to create time for ongoing diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
"If they continue preparations at this rate, it could go on for another week or two," he said.
The border buildup began after a squad of suicide attackers tried to storm the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on Dec. 13. The five attackers and nine other people were killed in a bombing and shootout outside the Parliament building.
India blamed the Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack and demanded that Pakistan arrest their leaders and shut down their operations.
Pakistan initially refused, demanding that India prove the groups were involved before it moved against them.
On Thursday, President Bush condemned the attack on Parliament. "The legislature of the world's largest democracy, a nation founded on the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, was ruthlessly attacked," he said.
On Friday, New Delhi recalled its ambassador to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, for the first time in 30 years. It also ordered the expulsion of a Pakistani diplomat.
The stalemate may have been broken this week, however, amid signs that Pakistan has begun to move against several militant Islamic groups that have long been allowed to raise money, recruit volunteers and operate openly in Pakistan.
In the most significant step, Pakistani officials detained Mulana Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, at his house in Punjab province Tuesday, according to a government spokesman.
Azhar is an Islamic cleric who India says planned the Parliament attack. He was freed from an Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for a planeload of hijacked passengers and is one of India's most wanted men.
"We think that will help," said the U.S. official.
The move came a day after Lashkar-e-Taiba announced that it had closed its office in Islamabad and will operate only in Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed and another militant group, Harkat Moujahedeen, closed their Pakistani offices shortly after Sept. 11.
Pakistani security agencies have also ordered the groups to remove their billboards, banners and flags from major cities and to stop soliciting donations.
In addition, Pakistan's central bank this week ordered all banks to freeze accounts of Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LET, and another group, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, or UTN, which was founded by the former director for nuclear power at Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission.