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Pakistan to postpone its purchase of F-16 jets

Pervez Musharraf
Pervez Musharraf

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf said Friday that Pakistan would postpone the purchase of F-16 fighters from the United States as his country tries to grapple with the massive devastation of the Oct. 8 earthquake, which has claimed more than 73,000 lives.

The 7.6-magnitude earthquake razed almost all major cities and towns in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, the picturesque Himalayan region that is also claimed by India, and severely affected northern parts of the country.

The earthquake, according to the United Nations, has affected more than 3.3 million people. Pakistan is already short of cash, as the reconstruction and rehabilitation process remains a gargantuan task. The United Nations has received only 25 percent of the money it has said is needed for reconstruction efforts.

The dwindling financial resources needed for earthquake reconstruction have pushed Pakistani policy makers to look for ways to lessen the pressure on the country's budget, but analysts added that the move to postpone buying the jet fighters has political considerations as well.

President Musharraf made the announcement while visiting Muzaffarabad, the flattened capital of the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir. "Yes, I am going to postpone that," he said while talking to reporters.

But Musharraf said that while the focus was on recovering from the earthquake, the planes remained an important priority.

"We should never do something that jeopardizes one or the other," he said. "So, both have their importance."

Musharraf had earlier this week said that he would not be cutting military spending. Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir in the past 58 years.

Pakistan is currently considering two options, either buying fewer than the originally planned 75 planes or importing a previous version of the aircraft from a European country, Dawn, the country's most prestigious English daily, reported Friday.

Pakistan attaches huge importance to the F-16s, as they constitute an essential element of its air force's capabilities. Pakistan had requested a purchase of F-16s back in the mid-1980s but the United States barred the sale of the fighters to Pakistan in 1990 after suspicions mounted that Pakistan was secretly producing a nuclear weapon. Pakistan tested its nuclear weapon in May 1998.

The go-ahead by Bush administration in March of this year to sell F-16s to Pakistan was seen as a reward for President Musharraf's cooperation in the war against terror.

Musharraf is an ally of the United States in the war against terror and has won accolades from Washington over his support of the United States. The news earlier this year that the Bush administration had lifted the restriction of the sale of the fighter jets met with euphoria in Pakistan.

While reconstruction and rehabilitation is a major concern for the government of Musharraf, the announcement Friday of postponing the purchase was also aimed at placating possible criticism within the country, analysts said.

"This is probably to get political mileage," Dr. Ayesha Siddiqua Aga, a security analyst based in Islamabad, said, adding that there already criticism over a recent $1 billion deal to buy Swedish Erie Eye SAAB airborne.

"If you buy major weapon programs, you can not attract foreign aid for relief and reconstruction," Aga said.

Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense and military analyst based in Lahore, agreed.

"I think this is a middle road that President Musharraf has adopted. He can keep the military happy because of no defense cut while deflect criticism," Rizvi said. "Already there has been criticism over the initial management of relief by the army and how the civilians were knocked out of the relief efforts."

The Bush administration had earlier said that it was Pakistan's prerogative to move forward with the $3 billion deal for the purchase of the fighters.

"In terms of the issue of F-16s, the decision on whether to move forward and in what way to move forward is going to be one for the Pakistan government to make," the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, told reporters.