ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The reported movement of troops toward Pakistan’s border with India on Friday raised the threat of war between the two nuclear-armed rivals and will distract Pakistan from fighting Taliban-led militants, security analysts said.

The specter of war also may be exaggerated to reduce international pressure on Pakistan to crack down on a militant group blamed for the deadly Mumbai attacks last month, analysts said.

Regardless, even the reports of troop movements made the crisis much more serious than before and could undo most of the progress the two countries had made in peace talks since 2004.

“The situation is at this point in time far more dangerous than it was when the military was in peace-time positions,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.

The military apparently started moving troops from the country’s border with Afghanistan to positions along the Indian border in what was described widely as a defensive measure in case India attacks. The army also canceled any planned leaves and said troops had to work a public holiday Saturday.

Since the three-day siege in Mumbai a month ago, in which 171 people were killed, tensions between the neighbors have grown. India has urged Pakistan to crack down seriously on terrorist groups – especially Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the Mumbai plot. Otherwise, India says, it will be forced to act. And Pakistan has demanded that India turn over proof that Pakistanis were involved.

Indian jet fighters have crossed into Pakistani air space; Pakistan jet fighters have scrambled over Pakistani cities in a show of military readiness.

The two neighbors have fought three wars since independence in 1947, and came close to a fourth in late 2001 and 2002, after Pakistani militants were blamed for a deadly attack on India’s parliament. At that point, a total of a million troops were sent to the border, and flights were canceled between the two nations.

At the time, Taliban-led militants took advantage of the Pakistani troops moving from the country’s border with Afghanistan to the border with India. They regrouped and started attacking U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan, analysts said.

Many feared that the Taliban, much stronger now than in 2002, would take advantage of Pakistani troops moving out of the tribal areas along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan.

“If it’s true, it’s exactly what the terrorists wanted,” said author Ahmed Rashid, who has chronicled the rise of the Taliban. “This was their game plan all along, to distract attention from the western border.”

Pakistani officials would not publicly confirm the troop movements, raising speculation that the movements may be exaggerated to deliver a message. Early Friday, U.S. intelligence and military officials told The Associated Press in Washington that they were trying to determine whether the reported troop movements were true, and, if so, what Pakistan intended.

A Pakistani military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, told the Chicago Tribune that “some troops” were being moved Friday out of the country’s tribal areas to the Indian border.

“There is a pullout, but from the areas which are snowbound and where troops are not operationally committed at this moment,” he said. When asked whether this would hurt the army’s fight against the Taliban, he answered: “Obviously.”

The Pakistan army has about 100,000 troops in the tribal areas. The official said he could not confirm where the troops would be deployed along the border with India.

Some security analysts said they believe war is unlikely. “I don’t think it’s at all serious,” said Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “Pakistan is obviously trying to ratchet things up.”

He added that this new crisis could distract the international community from pressuring Pakistan to clamp down on Lashkar-e-Taiba and its front organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

Pakistan’s powerful army and intelligence services have been accused of supporting Lashkar-e-Taiba in the past, to fight in India-controlled Kashmir, a majority-Muslim region that Pakistan believes belongs in Pakistan.

In New Delhi, Pranab Mukherjee, India’s foreign minister, told reporters that Pakistan is trying to deflect attention by threatening war. “Instead of diverting attention from the real issue, they should concentrate on how to fight against terrorism and bring to book the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack,” he said.

U.S. officials watched the developments in the region carefully. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the U.S. hopes that both sides will avoid unnecessarily raising tensions.

“We continue to be in close contact with both countries to urge closer cooperation in investigating the Mumbai attacks and in fighting terrorism generally,” Johndroe said in an e-mailed release.

U.S. and British officials have been urging both countries to use restraint since the Mumbai attacks.

Instead, the rhetoric has only gotten worse, largely for political reasons, analysts said. India’s ruling Congress Party, long considered soft on terrorism, faces an election next year. And Pakistan’s new civilian government has been accused of being too conciliatory toward India in the past.

“You’ve had a complete U-turn by the political leadership, obviously under army instructions,” Sahni said.

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-26-08 1810EST

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