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India Test-Launches a Short-Range Missile

South Asia: Pakistan decries New Delhi's move. The two nations have been in a standoff for more than a month.

January 26, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — India test-fired a short-range missile Friday that is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and neighboring Pakistan called the launch destabilizing amid a massive military buildup along their shared border.

India insisted that there was no political message in the firing of its newest version of the Agni ballistic missile, a weapon with a range of about 420 miles. The missile was successfully fired over the Bay of Bengal from the Wheeler Islands, off India's eastern coast.

The government gave advance warning of the test to Pakistan and the United States, among other countries, India's Foreign Ministry said.

"Agni is an ongoing project. We are taking many more steps for the nation's security and protection. This is one of them," Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said after the Friday morning test was announced.

The missile test had been postponed twice "for technical reasons," Lal Krishna Advani, Vajpayee's hard-line home affairs minister, told reporters.

The U.S. and other foreign governments have been urging India and Pakistan to step back from the brink of war since a Dec. 13 terrorist attack on India's Parliament. Fourteen people died in the attack, including the five gunmen, and India accused Pakistan's military intelligence agency of complicity. Pakistan denied the charge.

India and Pakistan both have ballistic missile programs, and each conducted nuclear tests in 1998. International pressure has failed to stop the South Asian arms race, and now that both countries are key allies in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, there is less risk of sanctions or other punishment.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government said Friday that it wouldn't respond with a missile test of its own, as Pakistan has in the past, but it called on other governments to criticize India.

"We hope the international community will take note of this Indian behavior, which is prejudicial to the pursuit of stability in our region, especially during the current situation," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said. "On its part, Pakistan favors a policy of restraint.

"Pakistan has the means to defend itself," the statement added.

Nirupama Rao, a spokeswoman for India's Foreign Ministry, insisted that Friday's missile test wasn't provocative, telling reporters, "The test was undertaken in a predictable and transparent manner."

India first tested an Agni missile in May 1989, when it modified a rocket developed for its civilian space program to fire a ballistic missile. The Agni had a range of 1,500 miles carrying a 2,200-pound warhead and brought China, a close ally of Pakistan, into range of an Indian missile strike.

In April 1999, India successfully tested the Agni II, with a theoretical range of 1,800 miles. India was expected to deploy several dozen of the missiles, according to a report by the Federation of American Scientists, which added, "It is suggested that a 200-kiloton 'boosted-fission' warhead has been designed for the Agni system."

India and Pakistan haven't said publicly whether they are capable of mounting nuclear warheads on their ballistic missiles. India has a stated policy that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has made no such commitment.

Tensions between the nuclear powers have been on a razor's edge since the Dec. 13 attack. This week, New Delhi again accused Pakistan's military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, of fomenting violence in India when at least one gunman on a motorcycle opened fire with an assault rifle outside the American Center in Calcutta, killing five Indian police guards.

Indian police and political leaders immediately called the Tuesday attack a terrorist strike, but they became more cautious after the FBI suggested that the incident could have been a criminal gang's revenge attack on police.

Although Advani also sounded a bit more cautious Friday, he said that previous investigations into the kidnapping ring suspected in Tuesday's attack found that the gangsters had links to Pakistani military intelligence.

Interpol, the international police organization, issued a warrant Friday for the arrest of a man in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, who called a senior Calcutta police officer to take credit for the American Center shooting, according to Advani.

He identified the caller as Farhan Malik, also known as Aftab Ansari, a suspected member of the kidnapping gang.

The attackers escaped, and Calcutta police are still searching for them.

Islamic militants and organized crime have cooperated in India for years, police investigators say. A string of bomb blasts that killed 257 people in Bombay in March 1993 proved the connection, Advani said.

"Ever since that, we have been conscious that those indulging in cross-border terrorism in India have been utilizing mafia gangmen for the purpose," he added.

The FBI has agreed to share information with Indian investigators probing Tuesday's attack, Advani said, and U.S. officials have already handed over a security camera videotape. But the attackers' faces aren't visible in the recording, Advani said.

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