- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

NEW DELHI India tested a new nuclear-capable missile yesterday and announced it will not pull back troops from its border with Pakistan anytime soon, raising tensions with its rival neighbor and drawing international criticism.

Officials said the missile, a shorter-range version of the intermediate-range Agni-I, was successfully fired over the Bay of Bengal from an island off the coast of Orissa state in eastern India. The missile's range is 420 miles.

The test drew immediate criticism from Pakistan deadlocked in a dispute with India over violence in divided Kashmir and from the United States, Britain and Germany. All said it sent the wrong signals amid the standoff with its nuclear-armed neighbor.

"We hope the international community will take note of this Indian behavior, which is prejudicial to the pursuit of stability in our region, especially during the current situation," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said. It added, "Pakistan has the means to defend itself."

Indian officials said the test was routine and had no political meaning. They said it had been scheduled months ago, well before a deadly Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament that prompted both India and Pakistan to mass forces along their border.

"The test was conducted in a non-provocative manner and has no bearing on the situation on the India-Pakistan border," Foreign Ministry spokesman Nirupama Rao said.

India accused two Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups and Pakistan's intelligence agency in the Parliament raid, which killed 14 persons, including the five attackers. It has demanded that Pakistan's government stop all cross-border attacks by militants based there.

Hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers, missiles, fighter jets and tanks have faced each other across their border since last month in the nations' biggest military standoff in decades.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who tried to nudge the rivals toward talks in a visit to the region last week, said he would have preferred that India "had not performed that test at this time of high tension."

But he said he did not think it would further inflame relations with Pakistan.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also criticized the timing of the test, saying, "Against the background of the current tensions with Pakistan, this test could lead to avoidable misunderstandings."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "I believe that restraint in developing possible nuclear-weapon delivery systems is in the long-term interest of India and the region."

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the missile test had been long expected and did not demonstrate any new Indian capabilities. The most advanced version of the Agni the Sanskrit word for fire can reach 1,500 miles.

India says it is developing its missile program as a deterrent against China.

India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since 1947, both conducted nuclear tests in 1998. India accuses Pakistan of funding and arming Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir for the past 12 years.

Under pressure from the United States, Pakistan has banned several Islamic groups and made hundreds of arrests.

Yesterday, Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani said his country would need many months to judge whether there has been a letup in "cross-border terrorism."

"At the moment, the government decision is that the present situation will continue," he said, referring to the troop deployments.

In New Delhi, sharpshooters, bomb-disposal squads, air-defense teams and 65,000 police took up positions in a show of tight security for a parade today that top officials will attend to mark the nation's Republic Day.

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