ISLAMABAD, May 22: Describing the situation on Pakistan’s eastern borders as “grim,” President Gen Pervez Musharraf said here on Wednesday that Pakistan and India were closer to war than they had been at any time since the Dec 13 attack on the Indian parliament.

The aggressive Indian rhetoric, said the president, had come in the wake of complete operational capability on the part of India which was why it could no longer be dismissed as mere rhetoric. However, he added, Pakistan armed forces were fully prepared to meet any threat and were capable of matching all forms of Indian aggression.

President Musharraf was speaking at a meeting with editors and senior journalists in the morning. Soon after the meeting, he went into a closed door joint session of his cabinet and the National Security Council.

Moving on to the national political scene, he said it was because of the tense border situation that he had decided to invite all political parties for a consultative meeting.

He said he was dismayed by the refusal of the ARD (Alliance for Restoration of Democracy) and the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal) to attend the all parties meeting he had called because it was a genuine initiative given that he was least interested in retaining power after the October elections.

“In fact,” he said, “I now want to shed power. I wish there was an elected prime minister to take the crucial decisions that need to be taken at this juncture.”

Explaining his concept of power, he said he wanted to shed the powers of the chief executive which ought to rest entirely with the prime minister. Musharraf said he was least interested in a figurehead prime minister and wanted a premier who wielded complete power to govern. However, he added, the setup he wanted to create would revolve around a system of checks and balances in which no one — the Prime Minister, the President or the Chief of Army Staff — could act arbitrarily.

This, he said, was possible only if the powers vested with each of these individuals were “diluted through an institutional mechanism such as the National Security Council.” The president said his government was confident that it would finalise the required constitutional amendments for the purpose within one month at the most. However, he added, the basic character of the Constitution would remain the same.

Musharraf said the intense diplomatic activity currently under way was evidence of the world’s desire to prevent a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in the subcontinent.

Dismissing suggestions that the US was not entirely happy with the efforts made by his government, he replied that such reservations were limited to the western media and were not shared by the western governments. If there was any difference, it was only on emphasis, he added.

Explaining, the president said Pakistan was more concerned with the local sectarian terror networks than by Al Qaeda or what India refers to as “cross-border terrorism.” The West, on the other hand, was focussed entirely on the latter. Despite this difference in perception, Musharraf said, western governments were completely satisfied with Pakistani cooperation.

SECURITY OFFICIALS: As part of the background to the presidential briefing, top security officials told newsmen that a two-kilometre strip all along the Line of Control (LoC) had been under intense Indian firing since May 17. Over 16,000 light and medium artillery shells had been fired by the Indian forces in the past five days, resulting in 20 deaths and 129 injuries. Pakistani military casualties currently stood at five dead and 30 injured.

Meanwhile, the security officials said India had taken its military build-up in the Indian held Kashmir to unprecedented levels by completing the deployment of two more mountain divisions in the valley. The latest deployment raises the number of Indian military and paramilitary forces in the valley to over 700,000.

Security officials said India was quite likely to carry out air strikes in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, possibly backed by a limited ground offensive. However, President Musharraf warned, even in the case of a limited offensive, the situation could quickly spiral out of control.

Security officials further said Pakistan was ready to pull back its forces from the western front if required and was even prepared to recall its troops currently serving in places such as Sierra Leone.

They said Pakistan’s western allies in the US-led war on terror had been informed of the possibility.

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