KARACHI, Pakistan – Pakistan's president indicated Monday he had been prepared to use nuclear weapons against India earlier this year, but a spokesman later backed off the assertion, saying that was not what he meant when he spoke of non-conventional war.
In a speech to Pakistani Air Force veterans, President Pervez Musharraf said he personally sent messages to Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee through visiting leaders that if Indian troops moved a single step across the disputed frontier, "they should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan."
Musharraf's comments appeared to confirm fears voiced last winter that the world was close to witnessing its first bilateral nuclear war. But hours later, a top official said the mention of non-conventional war was not a reference to the use of nuclear weapons.
Musharraf meant the people of Pakistan together with the conventional army would "neutralize the enemy's offensive," army spokesman Gen. Rashid Quereshi said. "Nowhere did he say that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons at all."
The danger point came when India and Pakistan sent troops to their shared border after a deadly attack on the Indian Parliament last December. New Delhi blamed Islamabad for helping to mastermind the assault that killed 14 people, while Pakistan denied playing any part.
India also possesses nuclear arms, and the situation so worried Washington at the time -- just as Pakistan became a key ally in the war on terror -- that it warned Americans to leave India.
During the heightened tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors, the U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi, Robert Blackwell, said there was a chance -- though a "rather small" one -- that the conflict between India and Pakistan could have led to nuclear war.
Blackwell said the threat of nuclear war caused the United States to speed up a warning to its citizens to leave India. Washington had long advised Americans to stay away from Pakistan.
The two nations had already fought three wars in 50 years and it seemed another war was imminent, until intensive international diplomacy brought the neighbors back from the brink.
India's army chief said Monday that Pakistan's nuclear capability would not have deterred it.
"We were absolutely ready to go to war. Our forces were well located," Press Trust of India quoted Gen. Sunderajan Padmanabhan as saying. "Such a decision (on whether to go to war) is ultimately a political decision."
Tensions eased recently as both sides said they were stepping back from their war footing. After massing over a million troops along their common border, India announced in October that it began pulling back its troops. Last month Pakistan said it was doing the same.
India and Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests in 1998, prompting international condemnation and sanctions against both countries. But the economic penalties were lifted after Pakistan became an ally of the anti-terrorist coalition following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The United States was particularly anxious to avoid an Indian-Pakistani war at a time when it depended heavily on Pakistani support as it waged its war in Afghanistan, Pakistan's neighbor to the west.
India and Pakistan insist they're responsible atomic powers. Each has ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads deep into each other's territory.
Pakistan and India share a 1,800-mile border, a section of which is a cease-fire line that divides Kashmir. Both claim the largely Muslim region in its entirety and have fought two wars over it.
Pakistan-backed militants have been waging a bloody secessionist uprising in Indian Kashmir since 1989 that has killed more than 61,000 people. Militants want either outright independence or union with Islamic Pakistan. Kashmir is India's only Muslim majority state in the predominantly Hindu country.