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."
UPDATE: Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani information minister, says the call was "processed, verified and cross-checked under an established procedure":
Without naming [leading Pakistani newspaper] Dawn, which carried the story in its edition of Dec 6 titled ‘A hoax call that could have triggered war’, a statement quoted the federal minister as having said, while commenting on reports in a section of the press, that it was not possible for any call to come through to the president without multiple caller identity verifications.
The Nov 28 call by someone from New Delhi who posed himself as Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, she insisted, had also been processed, verified and cross-checked in accordance with an intricately laid down procedure.
“In fact the identity of this particular call, as evident from the caller line identification device, showed that the call was placed from a verified official phone number of the Indian ministry of external affairs”, Ms Rehman said.