NEW DELHI: India announced yesterday it was expelling a Pakistani visa official for suspected spying after he was briefly detained carrying sensitive defense documents, with tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors already running high.
New Delhi police said the official had been recruiting Indian nationals for two and a half years to spy for Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in return for cash. “Delhi police crime branch has busted an espionage racket run by a kingpin working in the Pakistan high commission,” said Ravindra Yadav, joint commissioner of police on crime.
The official was detained on Wednesday at the Delhi zoo where he had arranged to meet two alleged Indian co-conspirators to exchange information including troop deployment along the border.
“They used to meet once in a month at a pre-decided place to exchange documents and money,” Yadav told reporters in New Delhi, adding that the two Indians from the northern state of Rajasthan were arrested.
Police extensively questioned the official, named as Mehmood Akhtar, before releasing him on diplomatic grounds. India’s foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar summoned Pakistan’s high commissioner to inform him of the decision to expel the official within 48 hours after declaring him “persona non grata”.
Tensions between India and Pakistan have soared since a raid last month on an Indian army base near the de-facto border dividing Kashmir killed 19 soldiers, the worst such attack in more than a decade.
India blamed militants in Pakistan and said it had responded by carrying out strikes across the heavily-militarized border, although Islamabad denies these took place. Indian and Pakistani troops regularly exchange fire across the border known as the Line of Control in Kashmir, but sending ground troops over the line is rare.
Pakistan’s High Commission in Delhi rejected the “false and unsubstantiated charges” leveled against its official and condemned his “detention and manhandling”. “We reject the Indian allegations and deplore the Indian action which is indeed a violation of the Vienna Convention as well as the norms of diplomatic conduct especially in an already vitiated atmosphere,” it said in a statement. “Pakistan High Commission has always been working within the parameters of international law and diplomatic norms.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup told reporters the official was “caught literally red-handed while accepting sensitive documents pertaining to vital national security”. Yadav said Akhtar was carrying documents that included maps showing deployment of India’s Border Security Forces (BSF) and army soldiers. “A list of jawans (soldiers) posted at the border along with soldiers who had retired from service was also recovered,” Yadav said.
The two Indian nationals have been charged under the Official Secrets Act and been remanded into custody. One of the men told reporters outside court that he was only “teaching children”. Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit lodged a “strong protest” with the Indian foreign ministry over the affair, a Pakistani diplomatic source said.
The expulsion comes as an Indian soldier died from injuries he received during an exchange of fire with Pakistani soldiers across the border. “A BSF jawan (soldier) was killed today by splinter injuries he received during cross border firing from Pakistan,” Indian BSF officer Manoj Kumar told AFP.
Such firings have increased in recent months as relations between the archrivals have plummeted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned Pakistan since the army base attack that India would push to make it a pariah state, accusing it of being a “mothership of terrorism”.
Tensions were already high before the attack, with deadly violence in Kashmir over the death on July 8 of a popular militant leader. Nearly 90 people, most of them young protesters, have been killed in clashes with security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir. Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain in 1947. Both claim the territory in full and have fought two wars over the mountainous region.-AFP