A minimum of three million people would be killed and 1.5 million seriously injured if even a “limited” nuclear war broke out between India and Pakistan, a new study warns. The estimates are made up of the immediate casualty list from the blast, and deaths from fire and radiation if only a tenth of both countries’ nuclear weapons were exploded above 10 of their largest cities. It does not take account of the additional suffering that would result from the loss of homes, hospitals, water and energy supplies, or the cancer that would develop in the future.

Troops are moving into the disputed Kashmir area, with a million soldiers facing each other across the border between India and Pakistan. Observers are afraid of a situation in which an attempt to achieve what India’s Prime Minister has called a “decisive victory” could cause Pakistan, which has far fewer conventional military forces, to launch a nuclear attack.

U.S. and Asian nuclear researchers investigated the impact of 10 explosions similar to that detonated by the U.S. over Hiroshima in 1945. They measured the results of five 15-kiloton bombs exploding above Bangalore, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and New Delhi in India, while another five explode above Faisalabad, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi in Pakistan. They conclude that hundreds of thousands of people would be killed or badly injured in every city, including 2.6 million in India and 1.8 million in Pakistan.

Estimates of the size of India and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals vary widely, with the most reliable estimates based on their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C. thinks that India has about 65 warheads made from 310 kilograms of plutonium, while Pakistan has around 40 made from 690 kilograms of uranium. Most of the weapons are likely to be around the 15-kiloton range and some of them may not work, says the institute’s David Albright. But in a serious confrontation, they could all be fired, particularly if decisions are left to individual commanders after a breakdown in communications.

If bombs explode on the ground instead of in the air, the resulting radioactive dust could kill people across hundreds of square miles, Albright says. And because the prevailing winds are from the west, India will become the victim of its own radioactive fall-out.

M.V. Ramana, one of the researchers from Princeton University and an expert on nuclear policy in India, says, “It is imperative that the two countries not go to war — however limited in scale. Even the most local conflicts have the potential to escalate into a full-scale war, possibly nuclear.”

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Pakistan is conducting a series of missile tests. “We don’t want war, but we are ready for war,” says Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The first medium-range Ghauri missile, fired at an undisclosed site, flew 900 miles, which is far enough to reach deep into India. It can carry both a conventional and nuclear warhead. The missile “showed total accuracy. It hit the target,” Musharraf says.

The test “demonstrates Pakistan’s determination to defend itself”, according to a statement by the Pakistani army. It says the tests are routine and are “concerning technical matters.”

The launches are Pakistan’s first major missile tests since April 1999. Both India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and both say they have added nuclear weapons to their arsenals since then.

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