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ISI eavesdrops on British mission

Last updated on: March 24, 2004 09:18 IST

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence has been trying to eavesdrop on social chitchat at the British high commissioner's residence in Islamabad, according to British sources.

Peter Millett, head of the Security Strategy Unit at the British foreign office, revealed details of the operation last month when he addressed a gathering of the Diplomatic Service Association, they said.

All diplomats routinely assume that they come under surveillance from time to time by the intelligence services of their host countries.

But Pakistan is a Commonwealth partner with whom Britain has a long and cordial relationship. Last week President Pervez Musharraf permitted crack UK commandos to join an operation to flush out Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden's loyalists operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Next month London is expected to lobby the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to lift the suspension imposed on Pakistan after Musharraf's military coup four years ago.

Yet beneath the surface of normal diplomatic bonhomie a bare- knuckle fight appears to be in progress between the ISI and Britain's famed MI6 intelligence service.

It started a year ago when British diplomats in Islamabad allegedly intercepted efforts by the ISI to bug their high commissioner's office.

Electronic listening devices were apparently also found a few weeks later in the hotel rooms of a visiting UK ministerial team.

A few months later a prominent British Sunday newspaper published a former British secret agent's account of how attempts were made to bug the Pakistani high commission building in London in an operation authorised by Home Secretary David Blunkett.

The agent claimed he had been instructed to steal secret Pakistani codes and help plant listening devices inside the internal telephone system, as well as within the offices of the embassy's military attaches.

The British foreign office never comments on intelligence issues, but leaked details of Millett's speech to the Diplomatic Service Association highlight his concern that electronic mail from London was also being targeted by a foreign country's sleuths.

The assumption among foreign policy experts is that Millett was once again referring to Islamabad when he told of the embarrassment that was caused after a certain host government intercepted a memorandum from Britain's Department of International Development.

Whether the attempt to bug the British high commissioner's residence in Islamabad was a tit-for-tat exercise has yet to be established. What is clear is that mutual suspicions continue to cloud bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, it is of little comfort to the British foreign office that its embassy residences in Brussels and Sarajevo have also been targeted by foreign intelligence services. In these capitals at least ambassadors and their spouses will have to learn to restrict their pillow talk.

Shyam Bhatia in London