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London talking about bugging operation in Pak mission

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Last updated on: November 05, 2003 03:08 IST

The bugging operation at the Pakistani high commission has been the topic of discussion in the diplomatic community in the British capital.

The operation was exposed by the Sunday Times in London though the newspaper did not reveal the mission involved. However, learnt that it is Pakistan's.

The report has embarrassed the governments of Britain and Pakistan, which on paper at least are allies of the United States in the fight against terrorism. According to the paper, the US embassy in London was also party to the operation.

Such espionage has not been in evidence since the days of the Cold War, when electronic devices were attached to every nook and cranny of the embassies of the Soviet Union and its allies.

The bugging operation seems to have been prompted by efforts to track possible links between Islamic extremists and Pakistan's security agencies operating out of London. Another reason seems to be doubts that many UK-based Islamic radicals of Pakistani origin have joined the Al Qaeda, either in the border regions of Afghanistan or other hotspots in West Asia.

What is most revealing is how little the Pakistanis are trusted by their UK counterparts and how, for all the bonhomie that exists at official levels, a question mark hangs over President Gen Pervez Musharraf's true intentions and his decision to distance himself from Islamic radicals.

The exposure is also a blow to the prestige of Pakistan's newly arrived high commissioner, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, who presented her credentials to Queen Elizabeth II only last Tuesday.

The report said the task of facilitating the bugging operation was given to a former MI5 (the UK's equivalent of the IB) agent, codenamed Notation, who has since confessed his role in the operation to the high commission. "It is likely that the foreign office will now have the embarrassing task of explaining the espionage operation to its ally," the report said.

It further claims that the MI5 took detailed plans and photographs of the mission before working out how to plant bugs in the telephone system and inside a closed-circuit television camera in the office of a diplomat. One officer is even alleged to have pretended to carry out a search for hazardous materials to gain access to secure areas.

Meanwhile, agent Notation received tens of thousands of pounds as cash payment from MI5. He was, according to the Sunday Times, also told by his handler that the entire operation had been authorised at the highest level with warrants being signed by Home secretary David Blunkett.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri on Tuesday morning defended his government's record in tackling Afghanistan-based terrorists, saying Islamabad is bearing the brunt of international efforts against them.

During a radio programme in London, he rejected charges that Islamabad is dragging its feet in confronting Al Qaeda and Taliban sympathisers who operate freely in its border areas.

"Last year, when India mobilised its armed forces on our borders, a million soldiers were involved in the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Despite that, we spared 70,000 soldiers to try and close that border with Afghanistan.

"We are getting $3 billion from America, but spent much more. Besides, people don't even try to estimate the losses to the Pakistan economy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US."

Kasuri's response comes within days of the disclosure last weekend that listening devices were planted in his country's London embassy because both US and UK security agencies have serious doubts about Islamabad's loyalties.

The minister returns to Islamabad on Wednesday.

Shyam Bhatia in London