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Pakistan shifts troops to Indian border

The redeployment away from the Afghan frontier and the fight against militants may be a setback for the Bush administration.

December 27, 2008|Laura King

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Ratcheting up tensions already heightened by last month's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Pakistan on Friday redeployed thousands of troops toward its border with India and canceled soldiers' furloughs, according to security and intelligence officials here.

The Pakistani moves reflected increasing wariness on the part of the nuclear-armed rivals after the rampage by gunmen through India's commercial and entertainment hub. Indian authorities have blamed Pakistani-based militants for the carefully orchestrated attacks in which more than 170 people were killed.

In the intervening weeks, India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars in the last six decades, have veered between conciliatory gestures and stridently nationalistic statements. Both governments insist that they do not want armed conflict but both have said they will defend their interests.

Pakistan's shifting of troops toward the Indian border and away from the Afghan frontier is likely to come as a blow to the Bush administration, which has praised Pakistan's military offensive against insurgents long based in its largely lawless tribal areas. The zone abutting the Afghan frontier is a stronghold for Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.

Senior diplomats, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveled to the region shortly after the Mumbai attacks, urging Pakistan to cooperate fully in India's investigation and crack down on militant groups implicated by Indian officials in the attacks.

The Bush administration Friday reiterated calls for calm. "We hope that both sides will avoid taking steps that will unnecessarily raise tensions during these already tense times," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, according to news agency reports. "We continue to be in close contact with both countries to urge closer cooperation in investigating the Mumbai attacks and in fighting terrorism generally."

Pakistan's government has taken some steps against the accused groups -- the banned militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliated charity, Jamaat ud-Dawa -- including arrests and raids on their facilities. But it says India has lagged in providing evidence about the attackers.

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan had no immediate comment on the Pakistani troop movements, but senior American commanders in Afghanistan have consistently said that a major Pakistani offensive in the tribal areas near the Afghan border, launched in August, has helped damp insurgents' ability to strike at Western troops inside Afghanistan.

A Pakistani Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Omar, welcomed news of the redeployment. Speaking to reporters from an undisclosed location, he said Taliban fighters would not launch attacks against Pakistani troops in the tribal areas as long as they were on alert against India.

The scope and repercussions of the Pakistani troop redeployment were not entirely clear. Pakistani news reports, citing security officials, said movements involved thousands of soldiers from the army's 14th Division to two garrisons that lie close to the Indian frontier, in the towns of Kasur and Sialkot.

Local witnesses said columns of Pakistani troops with heavy weapons had been seen Friday leaving positions in the tribal areas of Bajaur and South Waziristan.

The cancellation of furloughs was disclosed by Pakistani military officials earlier in the day. Officials speaking on condition of anonymity said some troops already on leave had been recalled.

The Pakistani moves were generally interpreted by Pakistani analysts as a warning to India rather than an actively aggressive posture. Moreover, some observers said they expected little immediate effect on the offensive in the tribal areas. Retired Brig. Gen. Mehmood Shah, now an analyst, said a "thinning out" of troops in the tribal areas would not significantly diminish the army's ability to confront militants near the Afghan border.

But Friday's developments illustrated the heavy domestic pressures on both the Indian and Pakistani governments. Although a peace process has been in place for five years, neither leadership can afford to be seen as weak in dealing with what many ordinary citizens on both sides of the frontier see as a dangerous enemy.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani, in office less than a year, declared Friday that Pakistan would not strike first at India.

"We will not take any action on our own," he said in a visit to Lahore, the closest major Pakistani city to India. "There will be no aggression from our side."

In India, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee pointedly urged Pakistan to look inward before making accusations of Indian belligerence.

"They should concentrate on the real issue -- how to fight against and bring to [justice] the perpetrators," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

The Pakistani move comes amid intense news media speculation that India might conduct missile strikes against camps and other sites associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Pakistan feels particularly vulnerable on that score, because in recent months, its Western-friendly civilian government has been seen as tacitly permitting a campaign of U.S. missile strikes against militants in the tribal areas. Although the government has lodged a series of formal diplomatic protests with the United States in connection with the strikes, it is widely believed to condone raids targeting senior militant figures.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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