India says Pakistani diplomat held at Delhi zoo was spy ring kingpin

2245Police say Mehmood Akhtar and two men were carrying forged documents and maps showing Indian troop deployments

India says it will expel a Pakistani diplomat it accuses of being the “kingpin” of a spy ring, after his arrest on Wednesday outside the gates of the Delhi zoo, where police allege he was planning to meet Indian contacts he had recruited.

Tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours are at their highest for more than a decade after 19 Indian soldiers were killed in Kashmir last month in an attack by militants that Delhi accuses Islamabad of sponsoring.

Police said the official, named as Mehmood Akhtar, and two Indians also arrested – Subhash Jangir and Maulana Ramzan – were carrying forged documents, lists of army officers stationed at the India-Pakistan border and maps showing Indian troop deployments.

Akhtar, who reportedly worked in the visa section of Pakistan’s high commission, has been released by police in line with agreements on diplomatic immunity, but has been declared persona non grata.

Ravindra Yadav, a police official, claimed the ring had been operating for two and a half years and that Akhtar was the kingpin.

The two Indian nationals in custody were from the northern state of Rajasthan, he said, and had been planning to meet Akhtar at the zoo the previous day to exchange documents and information for cash.

“They used to meet once in a month at a pre-decided place to exchange documents and money,” Yadav said.

There was a “high probability” that the leaked information was being used against Indian interests, a police statement said, adding that authorities had been trying to bust the alleged spy ring for six months.

Pakistan’s high commission in Delhi rejected the allegations and denied having ever engaged in activities “incompatible with its diplomatic status”.

Pakistan’s top official in Delhi, Abdul Basit, was summoned to India’s foreign ministry to be officially informed of the decision, an Indian government spokesman said.

Late on Thursday night, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it had declared an Indian diplomat, Surjeet Singh, persona non grata and given him 48 hours to leave the country.

A statement said Singh was accused of activities “that were in violation of the Vienna convention and the established diplomatic norms” but did not elaborate.

An aide to India’s prime minister in New Delhi said the government was looking into the matter. India’s external affair’s ministry spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

The diplomatic expulsions come amid heightened tensions over Kashmir.

In late September, India made an unprecedented announcement that it had sent special forces teams into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to kill militants it claimed were preparing to cross into the Indian-controlled side.

The two countries have been at loggerheads over Kashmir since 1947, when India was partitioned, and fought their first war over the Himalayan province they both claim in full but rule in part.

Pakistan has denied the special forces operation took place and claims India is trying to distract from its crackdown on unrest on its side of Kashmir, where more than 90 civilians have been arrested and thousands detained in a summer of protests.

The unrest stems from the killing in July of a separatist militant, Burhan Wani, whose death has become a rallying point for Kashmiris who want greater autonomy from Delhi or complete independence.

India has been pushing to internationally isolate Pakistan since the attack on its soldiers and, at a recent summit, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, described the Islamabad government as “the mothership of terrorism”.  The Guardian

Reuters contributed to this report

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