Zardari takes restrained tone after Indian 'incursion'

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The Independent Online

Was it clumsy flying or clumsy statecraft? Or did it simply never happen? Just hours before India's Prime Minister delivered his demand to Pakistan to take more action against terrorists, officials in Islamabad said that two Indian fighter jets had momentarily crossed into Pakistani airspace late on Saturday night, heightening anxieties in the country.

Pakistan said the jets had "inadvertently" flown into its air-space near the city of Lahore and over Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Both locations are where the Lashkar-e-Toiba is active. And if any air-strikes were to be made against the militant group – blamed for the attacks in Mumbai – these are the places it would happen.

The Indian authorities have denied any such incursion. Wing Commander Mahesh Upasani, a spokesman for the Indian Air Force, said: "There has not been any airspace violation as has been alleged." While the news earned a hostile reaction from some quarters in Pakistan, the President, Asif Ali Zardari, spoke in a retrained manner.

"My information, which is the correct information, is that it was a technical incursion, which happens when planes are flying at 50,000 feet. When they turn, a slight incursion could take place," he said. He said they had "lightly entered Pakistan soil", adding "incursions do happen".

More than anything, the incident underlines the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, which have fought three times since winning their independence from Britain. In 2002, the two countries again faced off and concerns grew that the two nuclear-armed nations were set for more conflict following an attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistan-based militants.

Yet the incident also highlights the lack of genuine options available to India. While the Indian government may wish to take firm action against suspected military training camps – especially with a general election just months away – it does not want to do anything to trigger further violence in the region. It will be aware that any attack on Pakistani soil would unite various factions in Pakistan and almost certainly lead to further terror attacks on Indian targets.

"It's not clear what happened," said Bahukutumbi Raman, a former Indian national security adviser. "But if they want to attack those training camps they would want to do it quietly. If this was deliberate, it would be counter-productive."