Winged duo held on suspicion of espionage; one of the jailbirds carried a message attributed to Pakistan-based terror group
NEW DELHI—At the center of the latest flutter along the tense border between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan: pigeons.
Two pigeons were in custody on Monday, Indian police said, after they were discovered in Indian territory in suspicious circumstances—a measure of the heightened national-security sensitivities between the estranged neighbors.
One of the pigeons, captured Sunday by a member of India’s Border Security Force in the northern state of Punjab, was carrying a note in Urdu—a language widely spoken in Pakistan—that was tied with a string to one of its feet. “Each and every child is ready to fight India,” the message read, according to police.
The pigeon’s missive was addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and signed “Lashkar-e-Taiba,” an Islamist terror group based in Pakistan, investigators said.
Indian television on Monday broadcast footage of the avian infiltrator, showing the gray bird peering from between the thick bars of a maximum-security cage surrounded by three uniformed officers.
Security forces on both sides have been on high alert as cross-border tensions have intensified in recent months. India retaliated last week for an earlier militant attack on its soldiers with what New Delhi described as “surgical strikes” on alleged terrorists in Pakistani-controlled territory in the disputed region of Kashmir. Islamabad denied Indian forces crossed into its side.
Another pigeon was apprehended 10 days ago some 30 miles south of the more recent avian arrest. Its tail feathers were stained blue from ink writings in Urdu and were stamped with an 11-digit number, said Rishpal Singh, an assistant sub-inspector of police. A Muslim cleric was summoned to help decipher the writing, which spelled out the days of the week.
The matter might have ended there, but a precautionary X-ray at a local clinic revealed some unusual spots in the bird’s abdomen. Two more X-rays followed, but Mr. Singh said authorities still aren’t sure if there is anything nefarious.
“We can’t understand what it is,” said Mr. Singh. The army is also being consulted, he said. The army hasn’t commented on the case.
The next step is to transport the bird, currently housed in a local police station, to a lab in a city 80 miles away for further investigation this week, according to Mr. Singh.
The attention to pigeons comes as Indian and Pakistani security forces have been regularly trading fire across the border. Militants attacked a border-guard post in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Sunday night, killing one trooper, before being driven back.
But suspicion about birds along the frontier isn’t new. Last year, a pigeon was discovered with a mysterious number imprinted on its feathers, raising fears of espionage—a top concern among authorities of both countries.
“We thought maybe it is a spy pigeon,” said Rakesh Kaushal, a senior superintendent of police in Punjab. But scans revealed no cameras, transmitters or electronic devices, so the pigeon was released, he said.
As for the bird found carrying the message on Sunday, Mr. Kaushal said the case appeared “less serious” and didn’t warrant further scrutiny. “We have checked the bird properly and thoroughly and found nothing to cause alarm,” he said.
“It is the work of frustrated minds on the other side of the border who were venting out their frustrations” after India’s recent military action, Mr. Kaushal said. “We can’t establish if it is from Lashkar.” Police would “feed it and take care of it and then let it go,” he said.
A border-security officer said there might be a simple explanation for the ink-stained birds. Residents on both sides of the border rear homing pigeons as a hobby and, sometimes, scribble their numbers or addresses on the birds in case they get lost.
But given the threats India faces from its neighbor, the officer said, “it is better to double check, if a harmless local practice is being abused or misused in any way.”
“Lawbreakers are always up to new tricks,” the officer said. “Who knows?”