How close were India and Pakistan to war, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice picked up the phone on Friday, November 28, to call India's foreign minister to convey Pakistan's extreme anxiety after terrorists stormed luxury hotels and a Jewish center in Mumbai?
That was one of the key questions making the rounds of the Pakistani capital Islamabad today, as speculation grew in the country's press over reports of a phone call which turned out to be a hoax.
The rumor was that last Friday India's foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee had called Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari and threatened Islamabad with dire consequences following the Mumbai attacks.
The fear of a wider conflict after the call was so intense that Zardari picked up the phone and called Rice, a top Pakistani government official told CBS News on condition of anonymity. "It felt like the clock was ticking away to doomsday," he said.
A European ambassador who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said fears of a clash between the two nuclear-armed neighbors grew rapidly on November 28 after the call, prompting Rice's intervention to stop what the U.S. at the time may have considered a deepening slide in Indo-Pakistan relations leading to war.
According to the European ambassador, Rice told Mukherjee that the Pakistanis were "extremely worried that they were on a conflict escalation ladder with India which could provoke an all-out war."
During Rice's conversation with Mukharjee, she mentioned receiving a "distress message" from Pakistan, though she did not reveal to the minister the name of the Pakistani who called at the time, said the European ambassador quoting detailed information he had compiled together.
The call subsequently turned out to be a hoax, though the circumstances in which it was made have forced both Pakistani and Indian officials to investigate the matter.
A Pakistani minister who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said the number used by the caller in Delhi to ring the operator at President Zardari's presidential residence in Islamabad "was one of the numbers from the Indian foreign minister's office in the Indian capital."
However, he quoted Indian officials denying to Pakistan that Mukherjee ever made the call and taking the position that "sophisticated technology must have been used to create an Indian number without anyone knowing that the caller was not Mukherjee."
Indian officials have said Mukherjee was in Calcutta, the southeastern Indian city, at the time he supposedly made the phone call.
Pakistani officials have also raised the possibility of a prankster in the Indian foreign ministry using the minister's official telephone, to provoke a crisis in Indo-Pak relations.
The case has also raised the possibility of lax procedures in President Zardari's official residence. In normal times, such a phone call would have been diverted to a senior official at the president's palace, who would then have called back the number in Delhi to confirm that it was Mukherjee on the line, before connecting him to the Pakistani president.
Pakistani officials also revealed that the same caller from Delhi, shortly after calling President Zardari, then called up Secretary Rice's number in the U.S., but was not put through to her.
On Saturday, Pakistan's largest-selling English newspaper, the DAWN, in a front page report titled "A Hoax Call That Could Have Triggered War," wrote:
"Whether it was mere mischief or a sinister move by someone in the Indian external affairs ministry, or the call came from within Pakistan, remains unclear, and is still a matter of investigation. But several political, diplomatic and security sources have confirmed to Dawn that for nearly 24 hours over the weekend the incident continued to send jitters across the world. To some world leaders the probability of an accidental war appeared very high."The European ambassador who spoke to CBS NEWS warned that the hoax call raises the dangerous possibility of "the failure to follow procedure and tampering of communication systems, bringing these two nuclear armed countries close to war."