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Hoax call to Zardari raises new concerns

Nirupama Subramanian


Claiming to be Pranab, he threatened Pakistan with military action

The call led to a high alert in Pakistan’s military establishment


ISLAMABAD: A hoax call that was made to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari last week by a man who pretended he was Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee and who spoke in a “threatening” tone, fuelled anxiety on Saturday about the potential for an accidental nuclear war in the region in such a situation.

As international concern mounted about the vulnerability of the Pakistani civilian leadership to such a dangerous hoax, as revealed by Dawn newspaper on Saturday, the Pakistan government made a thinly veiled accusation against India for setting off the controversy by disclosing the details to the Pakistani media. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman condemned “such efforts aimed at using the media for negative diplomacy at a time when tensions are running high between the two countries.”

However, a senior official of the Indian High Commission here said that the Indian briefing was aimed at explaining to the Pakistani media that at no point had India threatened war, and at “damping down” the tensions that had gone up “precisely because of this hoax call.”

As told by Dawn, the Pakistan President’s office bypassed standard verification procedures to put the late-evening call on Friday, November 28, through to Mr. Zardari. The caller, who claimed to be Mr. Mukherjee, threatened Pakistan with military action if it did not act against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.

The call led to a high alert in Pakistan’s military establishment. The Pakistan Air Force took to the skies, swiftly moving aircraft to forward bases on the eastern front.

The next day, ISI chief Lt. General Shuja Pasha told journalists at a briefing that at the first sign of military aggression from India, the Pakistan Army would withdraw forces from its western border and redeploy them in the east.

Only when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called Mr. Mukherjee and asked him about the threatening call was the truth about it discovered.

Mr. Mukherjee, who was in Kolkata at the time the call was purportedly made by him, told Dr. Rice that he had not made any such call.

Ms. Rehman did not explicitly deny that the call was a hoax, but said in her statement that the “so-called hoax” was traced to a phone number in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.

The Indian side believes the caller identification particulars were “manipulated” by the use of sophisticated technology as “no call was made from India” to the Pakistan Presidency that day.

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