BRITAIN gave warning of the “very real and very disturbing” possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan last night as the Government prepared an emergency mission to Delhi and Islamabad.
Jack Straw is to fly to the capitals next week to try to avert “the most serious conflict in the world in terms of potential casualties and the use of nuclear weapons”.
Youth activists from the Congress Party, India's main opposition party, shout anti-Pakistan slogans in front of an effigy of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf being hanged during a demonstration in Chandigarh May 22, 2002. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in a speech to soldiers massed on the Pakistan border in disputed Kashmir, said on Wednesday the time had come for a decisive fight. "Let's work for victory. Be prepared for sacrifices. But our aim should be victory," he said. "Because, it's now time for a decisive fight," he said in Kupwara in northern Kashmir. REUTERS/Dipak Kumar
In a chilling assessment of the escalating tensions in the sub-continent, the Foreign Secretary told journalists: “The international community is watching events with mounting concern. This is a crisis the world cannot ignore.”
Ministers believe the situation is now so tense that just one provocation could trigger catastrophe, and the murder of a prominent Muslim leader yesterday plunged the region even deeper into trouble. A million soldiers are assembled along the India-Pakistan border, most of them concentrated in the disputed region of Kashmir, where fresh clashes were reported yesterday.
Mr Straw’s mission will be closely co-ordinated with separate efforts by the US and EU and was agreed after dire warnings this week from military intelligence.
According to senior Whitehall sources, one plausible doomsday scenario presented to ministers envisaged the two sides fighting a bloody war that would lead to the first use of atomic weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In response to a terrorist attack, Indian troops would retaliate against Pakistan. The Pakistanis, who are considered better troops, would beat off the initial offensive. But the Indians would then use their superiority in conventional forces to overwhelm the Pakistanis. In turn Islamabad would use its weapon of last resort: a nuclear device. India would survive the strike and hit back with its own atomic weapons.
Were this scenario acted out, millions would die. India is believed to have about 60 nuclear warheads compared with Pakistan’s 25.
Yesterday the region remained “on a trigger”. George Fernandes, the Indian Defense Minister, told troops on a frontline position in Rajasthan that India had to give a “strong reply” to last week’s killing of 34 people by Islamic militants near Jammu. Pakistan responded with a blunt warning of its own. Major General Rashid Qureshi, the government spokesman said: “Any incursions into Pakistani territory or Azad (Pakistani-controlled) Kashmir will be responded to and met with full force.”
In the Kashmir capital of Srinagar, gunmen killed Abdul Ghani Lone, a Muslim leader who wanted to achieve independence through peaceful means. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said he was saddened and angered by the killing. “This was a terrorist act designed to undermine the hopes of the Kashmiri people for free and fair elections without violence.”
Mr Straw’s first priority will be to ease India’s anger, in the aftermath of the latest massacre, and urge the Hindu nationalist Government to exercise maximum restraint.
He will tell Pakistan that it must do more to rein in terror groups responsible for cross-border attacks into India and a wave of violence against Western targets, including the killing of French naval workers in Karachi, the murder of an American journalist and threats against British interests in Lahore.
Unlike the Middle East, however, where Britain supports the return of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians for the creation of a Palestinian state, Mr Straw will have to tread gingerly around the issue of Kashmir’s status. India has consistently refused to discuss the region’s sovereignty.
On a more practical level, Mr Straw and British diplomats are expected to try to build security ties between Islamabad and Delhi that would prevent the two accidentally going to war.
During the Cold War, for instance, the White House and the Kremlin were connected by a “hotline” to allow the two superpower leaders to speak directly and avoid misunderstandings. “There are always grave dangers of what started off as a limited military action getting out of control,” Mr Straw said.
His visit next week will follow a similar mission by Chris Patten, the EU’s External Affairs Commissioner, and then by Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State.
The diplomatic offensive is seen as critical before the Indian Government decides how to respond to last week’s massacre.“It is very important that we keep the foreign pressure on the two sides at this critical point,” said a senior British diplomat. “The forces are mobilized. With a click of the finger they could go.”
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd