A hoax telephone call almost sparked another war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan at the height of last month's terror attacks on Mumbai, officials and Western diplomats on both sides of the border said today.
Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, took a telephone call from a man pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee, India's Foreign Minister, on Friday, November 28, apparently without following the usual verification procedures, they said.
The hoax caller threatened to take military action against Pakistan in response to the then ongoing Mumbai attacks, which India has since blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), they said.
Mr Zardari responded by placing Pakistan's air force on high alert and telephoning Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, to ask her to intervene.
But when Dr Rice called Mr Mukherjee, he said that he had not spoken to Mr Zardari and that his last conversation with Shah Mahmood Qureishi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, had been quite civil.
"It's unbelievable, but true," said a Western diplomat familiar with the frantic diplomatic exchanges that eventually resolved the misunderstanding.
"It was a little alarming, to say the least."
The episode - reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr Strangelove - dramatically illustrates how easy it would be for another war to break out between India and Pakistan, even accidentally, following the Mumbai attacks.
The two countries have already fought three since winning independence from Britain in 1947 and almost went to a fourth in 2002 after LeT militants attacked India's parliament, prompting both sides to mass troops on their common border.
Some officials and analysts fear the hoax may have been part of an elaborate plot to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan, thereby diverting Pakistani forces away from the fight against Islamist militants near the Afghan border.
No-one on either side believes the call was a joke as people on both sides are acutely aware of the potential for war.
However, it remains unclear who placed the hoax call, from where, and why Mr Zardari's office appears to have disregarded standard operating procedures.
The two countries agreed as early as 2004 to establish a hotline between their foreign ministers in case of an accidental nuclear launch, but neither side could clarify today whether the link was up and running.
If Mr Mukherjee had wanted to call Pakistani leaders, the standard protocol would have been for him to telephone his counterpart, rather than the President, and to arrange the call through the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, which would tell the Pakistanis which number to expect a call from.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's Information Minister, issued a statement denying that the usual verification procedures had been bypassed.
She said Mr Zardari had received a "threatening" telephone call from "a verified official phone number of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs".
She did not say that it was from Mr Mukherjee, but other Pakistani officials insisted that it was.
Mr Mukherjee, however, denied yesterday that the caller was him, saying that India had been informed about the hoax by "friends from third countries".
"We immediately clarified to those friends, and we also made it clear to the Pakistan authorities, that I had made no such telephone call," he said.
"It is, however, worrying that a neighbouring state might even consider acting on the basis of such a hoax call, try to give it credibility with other states, and confuse the public by releasing the story in part.
"I can only ascribe this series of events to those in Pakistan, who wish to divert attention from the fact that a terrorist group operating from the Pakistani territory, planned and launched a ghastly attack on Mumbai."
He did not comment on the allegation that the call came from an official Indian foreign ministry number, but Indian government sources said that was unlikely.
"We're not living in a day and age when you can just look at the number flashing up in front of you and assume the call is coming from there," said one Indian official.
India has said it is not considering military action against Pakistan despite mounting political pressure on the government to appear tough on terrorism in the run-up to national elections, due by May.
But Wajid Shamsul Hassan, Pakistan's high commissioner in London, confirmed that Pakistan's government was bracing for an Indian military strike immediately after the Mumbai attacks.
"There was circumstantial evidence that India was going to make a quick strike against Pakistan to teach her a lesson," he told the BBC.
"This is what we were told by our friends - that there could possibly be a quick strike at some of the areas they suspect to be the training camps, an air raid or something of that sort."