Pakistan, India trade sanctions

NEW DELHI, India -- With their armies facing each other along the border, India and Pakistan jabbed diplomatically Thursday, ordering half of each other's embassy staffs sent home and banning overflights by each other's national airlines.

The tit-for-tat sanctions in a confrontation set off by a suicide attack on India's Parliament were the worst since the last India-Pakistan war in 1971. Both governments said they want peace but stressed they are prepared to fight.

"There is no measuring scale that we have to say how near or how far we are to war," Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh told reporters as he announced the latest sanctions on Pakistan. "I will just say this: Don't worry. We are ready."

In Pakistan, a spokesman for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's military government offered similar sentiments. "We have the capacity to react and retaliate in all conceivable ways," said Gen. Rashid Quereshi.

China, which neighbors both nations, said Thursday it was "deeply worried" by the escalating tensions between the two nuclear-armed antagonists and called for "dialogue and consultations" to keep stability.

In Washington, the Bush administration urged the leaders of the two countries to come to an understanding at a South Asia summit next week in Nepal. "They need to resolve their differences through dialogue," said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman.

India's government has accused Pakistan of responsibility for the Dec. 13 attack on the Parliament compound in New Delhi, in which nine Indians and five attackers died. Pakistan denies having anything to do with the raid.

India has imposed a series of diplomatic and economic sanctions to reinforce its demands that Pakistan move against two militant Islamic groups that help secessionist Muslims fighting in India's Jammu-Kashmir state.

With tensions rising, both countries have been moving military forces into border regions. There was no indication that either side had deployed nuclear weapons, which both are believed to keep stored unassembled.

Heavy skirmishing with guns and artillery have been reported along the frontier, but Pakistani authorities said the dividing line was quiet Thursday.

India's foreign minister said the airline and embassy sanctions announced Thursday were necessary because India's concerns over terrorism "have not been fully grasped in Pakistan."

A Pakistani spokesman decried the move but said the regime in Islamabad had to respond in kind.

"Our desire is that the matter should be resolved through talks, but these Indian steps will further complicate the situation. Therefore, we are taking reciprocal steps," said Aziz Ahmed Khan, spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry.

The airline ban takes effect Jan. 1. That is the same day that India previously set for shutting off train and bus service between the two countries.

International pressure

India is also hoping for international pressure on Pakistan, such as the United States labeling as terrorist organizations the two militant groups -- Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed -- that India blames for the Parliament attack.

Pakistan said this week it had frozen the two groups' bank accounts and briefly detained the leader of Jaish and some of his followers.

Singh, the Indian foreign minister, said in a nationally televised news conference Thursday that Pakistan's actions were intended to "dupe the international community." He noted the arrested Jaish leader was quickly freed and the asset freeze was announced days in advance, which would give the groups time to empty their accounts.

India wants Pakistan to put the groups out of business, shut down their training camps, ban their recruitment and use troops to block militants from crossing into Jammu-Kashmir.

Pakistan denies providing any material support for militant Islamic groups but calls their members "freedom fighters" for participating in the 12-year-old insurgency in Jammu-Kashmir. Human rights groups say more than 60,000 people have died during the rebellion in Kashmir, which has been the focus of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since 1947.

Pakistan urges talks

Pakistan has been urging India to engage in talks, indicating Musharraf would be willing to sit down with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the South Asia summit.

India has rejected any meeting between the two leaders at the summit.

India, which recalled its ambassador from Islamabad last week, said Thursday that it was withdrawing half the remaining embassy staff. It also ordered half the staff at Pakistan's embassy in New Delhi to leave and said it would prohibit the remaining diplomats from traveling outside the city.

Singh accused the Pakistani embassy employees of engaging in espionage and meetings with terrorists.

Pakistan announced the same actions shortly afterward.

Pakistan International Airlines will be hurt most by the flight ban because it has 16 flights a week between the countries and will have to change routes to Japan and Southeast Asia that now cross over India. Indian airlines don't fly to Pakistan or over it because of security concerns.

Tens of thousands of soldiers, squadrons of fighter jets, artillery and ballistic missiles face each other along an 1,100-mile border that extends from the Himalayas in the north through the Thar desert to the Arabian Sea in the south.

"Given a choice, we don't want a war," Indian Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said at a public rally in Bombay. "If it is forced on India, it will be of such an intensity that there would be no need for another war in future."