Pakistan plans response to missile test

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The Independent Online
BREAKING A five-year moratorium yesterday, India successfully launched its second intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) Agni-II from a new test site off Orissa on the west coast. The 60ft-long missile, which is designed to carry a nuclear payload and can reach any part of Pakistan and deep inside China, was fired at 9.47am local time and travelled 1,200 miles before plunging into the Bay of Bengal.

Everything about yesterday's launch was controversial - even the new testing site, which is close to the nesting ground of hundreds of thousands of olive ridley turtles. Environmentalists have protested bitterly about at testing at such a sensitive spot, but to no avail.

In adherence to the Lahore Accord signed by the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in February, India gave Pakistan advance notice of the test. The Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes, said that the launch of the missile would make India immune to any external threats.

But the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, said the test had "threatened [Pakistan's] security and endangered the fragile security balance in the region". Agni-II introduces a new weapon system in the region, he said, which was a matter of "deep concern. We are disappointed and concerned," he said. "We had decided on restraint. But now Pakistan will have to examine its options on how to respond." Analysts believe it is almost certain that Pakistan will answer India's move by testing its own Shaheen missile.

American officials also voiced their disappointment. A spokesman at the US embassy in Delhi said the US regretted the move, which was "out of keeping with recent developments".

Within India, however, even opposition parties, including Congress, fell over each other in their haste to congratulate the Indian scientists. A senior figure in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the ruling coalition, described the test as "yet another feather in the cap of [Prime Minister] Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his government."

In a television address to the nation, Mr Vajpayee described Agni-II as a "vindication of our steadfast commitment to self-reliance. In a rapidly changing security environment, India cannot depend on others to defend her. Agni is a symbol of the resurgent India which is able to say, yes, we will stand on our own feet." The test, he went on, was "purely a defensive step. It is not meant for aggression against any nation. Rather Agni is proof of our determination to strengthen our national security so ... we can defend ourselves."

Mr Vajpayee reiterated that India remained committed to "minimum deterrence, to no first use of nuclear weapons and never to use them against non-nuclear weapon states. Let us together," he concluded rousingly, "make the 21st century India's century."

As long ago as 15 December last year, Mr Vajpayee announced that Agni- II would soon be tested. But the big day was postponed several times for various reasons, most memorably because of his own historic bus trip across the Pakistani border to tie the knot of trust and friendship with his Pakistani counterpart, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif.

Now the deed has finally been done, and the timing is significant. Mr Vajpayee's government faces one of its toughest weeks since it came to power over a year ago: one of the fragile coalition's key partners, a party from the southern state of Tamil Nadu led by a former film star called Jayalalitha, is almost certain to pull out of the government. It is therefore conceivable that this could be Mr Vajpayee's last week in power - and he has made clear that he does not intend to fight for another term in office. If so, he has clearly decided to go out in the same way he came in - with a bang.