ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan told India on Saturday it did not want war and was committed to fighting terrorism — a move apparently aimed at reducing tensions after Pakistan moved troops toward their shared border.
Intelligence officials said Friday that the army was redeploying thousands of troops from the country's fight against militants along the Afghan border to the Indian frontier — an alarming scenario for the West as it tries to get Pakistan to neutralize the Al Qaeda threat.
Islamabad also announced it was canceling all military leave — the latest turn of the screw in the rising tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors following last month's terror attack on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.
India has blamed Pakistani militants for the terrifying three-day siege. Pakistan's recently elected civilian government has demanded that India back up the claim with better evidence but has also said it is committed to fighting the "cancer" of terrorism.
"We ourselves have accepted that we have a cancer," said Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in a televised speech Saturday. "They are forcing their agenda on us."
Zardari has pledged to battle militancy, repeatedly reminding critics that his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was herself killed in a gun-and-suicide bomb attack blamed on terrorists.
Tens of thousands of Pakistanis visited her grave Saturday to mark the first anniversary of her assassination.
But in the four months since Zardari took power — picking up the reins of her Pakistan People's Party in the wake of her death — Islamist violence has continued largely unabated.
Many analysts have speculated that the assailants who carried out the Mumbai attacks sought to distract Pakistan by redirecting its focus toward India and away from the military campaign against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Afghan border.
Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said Saturday it was unfortunate that a "sort of war hysteria" has been created in Pakistan.
"I appeal to Pakistan and Pakistani leaders, do not unnecessarily try to create tension," he said, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. "Do not try to deflect the issue. A problem has to be tackled face to face."
Pakistan's latest moves, including the troop redeployment, were seen as an indication that it will retaliate if India launches air or missile strikes against militant targets on Pakistani soil — rather than as a signal that a fourth war between the two countries was imminent.
The United States has been trying to ease the burgeoning crisis while also pressing Pakistan to crack down on the militants Washington says were likely responsible for the Mumbai attack. The siege left 164 people dead after gunmen targeted 10 sites including two five-star hotels and a Jewish center.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials — requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation — said Friday that elements of the army's 14th Infantry Division were being redeployed from the militant hotspot of Waziristan to the towns of Kasur and Sialkot, close to the Indian border.
The military began the troop movement Thursday and plans to shift a total of 20,000 soldiers — about one-fifth of those in the tribal areas, they said without providing a timeframe.
Witnesses reported seeing long convoys carrying troops and equipment toward India on Thursday and Friday, but there was no sign of fresh movement Saturday, suggesting the country was not rushing the troops to the frontier.
Another intelligence official said Saturday up to 1,300 troops had also been pulled out of Bajur region, the scene of a major Pakistani offensive against the Taliban. They were transported to a large base back from the Afghan border, said the official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. But their final destination was not immediately known.
The army has refused comment on any troop movement, but a senior Pakistani security official Friday denied that soldiers were being deployed to the Indian border.
He said a "limited number" of soldiers were being shifted from areas "where they were not engaged in any operations on the western border or from areas which were snowbound."
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947, two over Kashmir, a majority Muslim region in the Himalayas claimed by both countries.
India and Pakistan have said they want to avoid military conflict over the Mumbai attacks, and most analysts say war is unlikely, not least because both sides have too much to lose if conflict breaks out.
But India — which is under domestic pressure to respond aggressively to the attacks — has not ruled out the use of force.