ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and India were withdrawing more than a dozen diplomats from the other country after a spike in spying allegations from the two sides, further vitiating the atmosphere in the nuclear-armed South Asia.

As many as six officials in the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi returned home yesterday, amid the ongoing diplomatic tussle and skirmishes along the Line of Control.

According to diplomatic sources, the decision was taken as the Indian government was allegedly ‘threatening and blackmailing’ Pakistani diplomats.

India, on the other hand, said it would withdraw eight of its diplomats from Pakistan after they were identified in local media reports and were accused of being part of spying network.

The two countries last week expelled one of each other’s diplomats over spying claims after declaring them personae non gratae.

“They have put in the public domain eight names (of diplomatic staff) and six of these people went today. We will eventually withdraw all eight,” Reuters reported Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup as saying yesterday.

He said the diplomats had been “completely compromised” after their names and pictures were put in the public domain.

Though there was no official confirmation on the number of Pakistani diplomats leaving India, according to people in the Pakistan High Commission, there were six mission officials who had left or were in the process of leaving.

“The decision has been taken after it became impossible for the officials to work in this vitiated atmosphere. Indian government is threatening and blackmailing our diplomats. So in this condition, it is impossible for us to stay in this country and work,” they alleged.

According to sources, those who have come back to Pakistan include Commercial Counsellor Syed Furrukh Habib and First Secretaries Khadim Hussain, Mudassir Cheema and Shahid Iqbal.

Relations between the arch rivals have been strained since the summer, when civil unrest erupted in held Kashmir, with Islamabad lobbying globally against India and New Delhi’s crackdown on Kashmiri activists.

Foreign ministry officials told The Nation yesterday that Pakistan was set to expel at least two Indian diplomats for spying, though some media reports said Islamabad may expel as many as five Indian diplomats.

They said one of them, Rajesh Kumar Agnihotri, Commercial Counsellor at the Indian High Commission, was allegedly leading a network of individuals involved in ‘terrorist activities’ in Pakistan. He has been accused of working for the Research and Analysis Wing.

The other diplomat, Balbir Singh, who is working as the First Secretary Press Information, is also part of the network and is affiliated with the Indian Intelligence Bureau, the officials said, citing investigations by different agencies.

A senior official said the two could be expelled ‘very soon’ for facilitating and funding terrorism in Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said the already expelled Indian official - Surjeet Singh - had obtained a fake card of a mobile phone company under the name ‘Abdul Hafeez’.

India had blamed Pakistani diplomat Mehmood Akhtar of involvement in activities beyond the diplomatic laws before expelling him.

Last month, India said it had carried out a ‘surgical strike’ in Pakistan to avenge the Uri attack, but Islamabad denied the strike took place and accused India of inventing it to distract attention from its crackdown on protests in the part of held Kashmir.

In March Pakistan said that an Indian agent Kulbhushan Yadav was arrested in Balochistan province for his subversive activities in the sensitive area. New Delhi denied Yadav was working for the Indian government. India’s External Affairs Ministry said he had retired from the navy and ran a business in Iran, from where he may have been allegedly abducted. Pakistan has denied Indian requests for consular access to Yadav, who has not been charged.

Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria said evidences collected from Yadav were being compiled and given the shape of a dossier, which will be presented to the UN secretary general at an appropriate time.

Another high-profile Indian spy caught in Pakistan was Ravindra Kaushik (1952–1999), who was sent across the border in 1975 on a mission after extensive training in Delhi for two years. He had kept on passing valuable information to RAW from 1979 to 1983.

In September 1983, Indian intelligence agencies had sent a low-level operative, Inayat Masih, to get in touch with Kaushik. But the agent was caught by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and had revealed Kaushik’s true identity during probe.

Former Pakistan ambassador to US Senator Sherry Rehman said the government must appoint a full-time foreign minister without any delay.

“The foreign policy is suffering as we don’t have a full-time foreign minister. The people running the ministry are not fully empowered,” she said.

She said the unearthing of the spying network was not an ‘ordinary event’. “The foreign ministry should take it up and expose the Indian network,” she added.

Former ambassador Zafar Hilali said India must stop interference in Pakistan. “This is not the first time that such spies have been detected. India has been running an organised network to disturb peace in Pakistan,” he said.

Hilali said the government must expose the Indian designs before the world at the UN. “India is increasingly defying international rules. It is violating the LoC and involved in gross human rights violations in Kashmir,” he said.