ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan, locked in a military standoff with India, said
it successfully test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile Tuesday just two days
before it holds a general election.
The test was the second and last in a series that analysts said was a signal to nuclear rival India at a time of increased tension and aimed to enhance the military's image just two days before it officially hands the country over to civilian rule.
Pakistan's medium-range ballistic missile 'Shaheen-1' takes off from an undisclosed
site on October 8, 2002. Pakistan, locked in a military standoff with India, said
it successfully test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile on Tuesday just two
days before it holds a general election. REUTERS/ISPR/Handout ISPR
It also coincided with the last phase of a state assembly election in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the Himalayan region that was the trigger for two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since their independence in 1947.
President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, enjoys broad support in Pakistan, and standing up to arch-foe India is likely to prove popular.
While not seen as a direct vote-winner for pro-Musharraf parties in Thursday's Pakistani poll, analysts said the missile test is the military's way of showing that the country needs a strong general at the helm, just 48 hours before the election.
"The army is creating a sense of fear in the public's mind," said Pervez Hoodbye, an academic and commentator in Islamabad.
"It is the only way that the military can survive, to create this mentality and sense of being besieged by India. He has to occasionally rattle his sabers and issue threats now and then."
Musharraf will remain as president for another five years after the poll, and although he has promised to hand power over to an elected parliament, analysts and ordinary Pakistanis expect him to go on running the country.
He has been accused by political opponents of a brazen attempt to hold on to power by banning key opponents, enhancing his powers, extending his tenure by five years in a widely criticized referendum and backing a key political party.
"All this interference is going to undermine the credibility of elections," said Afrasiab Khattack, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"The blatant manner in which the electoral process is being vulgarized and the will of the people mocked is extremely worrying," the group added in a statement.
Tuesday's missile test was the second in five days and a repeat of Friday's successful launch of a medium-range Hatf-IV (Shaheen-1) surface-to-surface missile.
Jane's Defense Weekly says the Shaheen-1 has a range of about 430 miles and can carry a 2,200-pound warhead.
Friday, India test-fired a short-range surface-to-air missile of its own just hours after Pakistan's exercise and linked Islamabad's actions to the Pakistani election.
Tuesday, when asked in Berlin what India would do in reaction to the latest test, Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha replied:
"Nothing. They are a sovereign country. They have tested their missiles. Good luck to them."
He added that "from India there is no danger of escalation or conflict," although he repeated charges against Pakistan that it was sponsoring "cross-border terrorism" by supporting Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region.
The threat of war between the neighbors has receded since June when tensions were at their height.
However, verbal sparring between the rivals has intensified in recent weeks as India accused Pakistan of undermining its Kashmir elections by encouraging Islamic militants to step up their violent campaign against Indian rule.
Islamabad has denied the charge, and blamed Indian intelligence for sponsoring violence in Pakistan.
More than 600 people have been killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir since early August, when state elections were announced. Islamic militants stormed a polling booth Tuesday in the fourth and final round of voting, killing two soldiers.
The United States criticized both countries for last week's tests, saying they could encourage a nuclear missile and arms race in the region.