India and Pakistan traded tough diplomatic sanctions on Thursday, as military tensions rose on their border and both sides said they were ready for war.
Following a meeting of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's security cabinet, India announced it would halve the two countries' embassy staff in Islamabad and New Delhi and ban Pakistani aircraft from flying over Indian air space.
Pakistan swiftly announced reciprocal measures.
"Such efforts will only increase tension and we are forced to take retaliatory actions," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said.
Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said the sanctions were the result of Pakistan's attempts to "dupe" the world with "cosmetic measures and non-measures" against militant groups operating in its territory.
The air space ban will take effect on January 1, and the embassy downgrade in 48 hours, Singh said, adding that all remaining Pakistani High Commission staff would be confined to New Delhi.
Each country has an embassy staff of 110 in the other.
The new sanctions followed last week's recall of the Indian envoy to Pakistan and the snapping of bus and rail links between the nuclear rivals, which have fought three full-scale war since their 1947 independence from Britain.
The crisis stems from India's accusation that Pakistani military intelligence sponsored the December 13 attack on the parliament complex in New Delhi and its threat of military retaliation.
The United States said on Thursday it had carefully and clearly informed India and Pakistan that it was concerned a rapidly escalating crisis between the two could detract from its war on terrorism.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials said Washington, which has engaged in a flurry of telephone diplomacy in the last few days, was highly engaged in the situation.
"This is something we're keeping our eye on very carefully, and we have clearly made the interests we have in this subject known to both sides very carefully and with clarity," Rumsfeld told reporters.
He alluded to concerns that Pakistan may be forced to redeploy manpower from its border with Afghanistan -- where scores of troops are hunting terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
"They have not yet moved forces from the Afghan border, and that is very encouraging to us, because it would be a big disappointment to us," Rumsfeld said.
New Delhi has demanded that Islamabad shut down the two Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups blamed for the attack -- Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad -- seize their assets and arrest their leaders.
Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes described the situation as "grave" but said diplomatic efforts should be given time even as fresh troops were being moved to the border.
"In the next two to three days, the deployment process will be completed and the forces will be ready for any eventuality," Fernandes said.
In Islamabad, military spokesman Major General Rashid Qureshi said Pakistan could retaliate in "all conceivable ways" to any Indian escalation of their dispute but described a nuclear war as unthinkable.
"These (nuclear weapons) are deterrents which are not meant to be more than that. It's something that I think one shouldn't even consider," Qureshi said.
Pakistan has frozen Lashkar's assets and says it has arrested the founding head of the Jaish militant group, Maulana Masood Azhar.
However, Singh said the accounts frozen had already been emptied and that it was Azhar's brother who had been arrested, while the whereabouts of the Jaish leader were unknown.
"This is not acceptable," Singh said.
"All that is expected really is a recognition of the enormity of what has happened and the sense of outrage caused across the length and breadth of India.
"Then (Pakistan) must take the necessary consequential steps."
Pakistan reiterated its willingness for talks between Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee at next week's South Asia regional summit in Kathmandu, but Singh rejected the suggestion outright.
"It is not practical, it is not possible," he said, while confirming Vajpayee would attend the summit.
The meeting has been effectively scuttled by India's ban on Pakistani overflights, an analyst in Islamabad said Thursday.
"Effectively the Indians have foreclosed Pakistan's participation in SAARC and therefore scuttled it," said Riffat Hussain of Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University.
(China Daily December 28, 2001)