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Hoax call prompted a Pakistani air alert

December 07, 2008|Laura King and Henry Chu | King and Chu are Times staff writers.

NEW DELHI AND ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A hoax caller claiming to be India's foreign minister threatened Pakistan's president with war during the final hours of the Mumbai attacks, prompting Islamabad to put its air force on its highest alert for nearly 24 hours, a news report said Saturday.

Meanwhile, Indian authorities reported the first arrests since the end of last month's siege in India's commercial and entertainment capital, which killed more than 170 people. Police said they had detained two men, one in New Delhi and one in the eastern city of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, who owned the cellphone cards that were later used by the attackers.

Indian police have been interrogating the lone captured suspect, a young man they have identified as Ajmal Amir Kasab, who they say is from the Pakistani village of Faridkot. Pakistani officials have expressed doubt that the man is a Pakistani, but Britain's Observer newspaper reported today that it had obtained voter registration rolls and the national identity card numbers of the man's parents, confirming that he was from the village, which is in the Punjab province.

The hoax call and subsequent air force alert, reported by Pakistan's English-language Dawn newspaper, underscored the volatile atmosphere between the nuclear-armed neighbors during the 60-hour Mumbai rampage by gunmen that began the night of Nov. 26. Relations have remained tense.

The report also seemed certain to raise new questions about the competence of Pakistan's government, elected less than a year ago. It has been criticized for promising to send the chief of its main spy agency to help India in the investigation, then reneging after objections from the opposition and the security establishment.

The Dawn account said it took the intercession of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others to establish that the Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, had not made the call to President Asif Ali Zardari threatening military action on the night of Nov. 28.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Lou Fintor, said he was not aware of such an incident. Pakistan's Information Ministry said in a statement that the call in question was put through because it was believed to have come from a recognized exchange within India's Foreign Ministry.

A Western diplomat and a Pakistani security official confirmed the broad outlines of the Dawn account.

India has blamed Pakistan-based militants for the attacks, but not the Pakistani state. Pakistan has denied any official involvement, and there is widespread public anger in the country over India's accusations about Pakistani elements even before the siege ended.

During the alert, Pakistani warplanes patrolled with live weapons, Dawn said. At the time, senior intelligence officials also suggested to reporters that Pakistan might shift tens of thousands of troops to the Indian frontier.

Two arrests reported Saturday by Indian authorities could help support a thesis that the Pakistani militant group had local accomplices.

But a police official cautioned that the two men did not necessarily have direct links to the attackers or advance knowledge of the plot. And security officials later said that one of the men is a counter-insurgency police officer who may have been on an undercover mission, the Associated Press reported.

Officials said the arrested pair had bought large batches of cellphone SIM cards that included one later used by the gunmen during the attacks.

Police say the gunmen were in touch by cellphone with handlers in Pakistan during the siege, allegedly seeking advice.

Police have released information about another Indian who they say was recruited by the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba to scout possible target sites in Mumbai, including some of those that were hit during the attacks. Police say he had maps of the sites.

Although it has not been established whether the man was directly connected to the attacks, outrage in India has grown over the perceived failure of authorities to act on intelligence pointing to an imminent strike on Mumbai. On Friday, India's new home minister acknowledged that there had been "lapses" in security.



Laura King reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan

Henry Chu reporting from New Delhi

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