`MI5 tried to bug Pakistani mission in London'

LONDON NOV. 6. Both Britain and Pakistan were today trying to play down media reports that British security services tried to bug the Pakistani High Commission in London, allegedly to probe Islamabad's suspected links with Muslim extremists.

Neither the Pakistani High Commission nor the British Foreign Office was willing to comment even as The Times quoted officials in Islamabad as saying that an "internal investigation had been started and reassurances sought from the British Government''.

Pakistani diplomats here were, however, tight-lipped. "We have no comment,'' a spokesman of the High Commission told The Hindu tersely.

That was also pretty much the reaction of the British Foreign Office.

"We never comment on security matters,'' its spokesman for South Asia said and declined to confirm or deny whether Pakistan had made a complaint.

"We have an ongoing dialogue with Pakistan ...I am not going to be drawn into details,'' he said. The allegation first surfaced earlier this week when The Sunday Times claimed that MI5 had tried to `spy' on the diplomatic mission of a friendly country in 2001 at the height of the anti-terror campaign.

It did not identify the country but said it had been Britain's `ally' in the war against terror.

On Thursday, The Times' correspondent in Islamabad quoted Pakistani officials as saying: "We know it was our embassy, although we are not in a position to confirm or deny the content of the story at this stage''.

It also claimed that the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, Mark Lyall Grant, had been `summoned' to the Foreign Ministry and given a demarche, and that the issue had also been raised with Downing Street.

The contents of The Sunday Times story were today confirmed by a report in The Independent which claimed that the U.S. embassy in London also played a minor role by facilitating a meeting between the would-be `spy' and MI5.

At the heart of the row is said to be a contractor, hired to renovate the Pakistani High Commission's `dilapidated' premises in Knightsbridge.

It is alleged that he helped MI5 officers "unrestricted access to the building'' under cover of restoration, and was paid "tens of thousands of pounds'' for his work. According to The Sunday Times, the contractor, codenamed `Notation', told the newspaper that MI5 removed codes used by Pakistani staff for sending secret messages, and prepared plans to plant bugging devices in the high commission's internal telephone system.

He also claimed that MI5 officers took away confidential documents and photographed the inside of the building.

But the alleged operation was apparently abandoned after he fell out with his MI5 handlers and it emerged that he had been treated for mental problems.

The disclosure came as the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, was in London holding talks with his British counterpart, Jack Straw.

But the Foreign Office refused to say if the issue was raised by Mr. Kasuri.