Updated at 10:11 a.m. ET on 2019-03-01
Indian warplanes attacked an insurgent camp inside Pakistani territory Tuesday, killing “a very large number of militants,” India’s foreign secretary said, in a rare airstrike that sharply escalated tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors almost two weeks after a massive car bombing in Kashmir.
Fighter jets struck “the biggest training camp” of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the Pakistan-based militant group that claimed credit for the Feb. 14 bombing in the disputed Himalayan region, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters.
“A very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for (suicide) action were eliminated,” Gokhale said.
Pakistan said there were no casualties or damage.
Gokhale said New Delhi undertook the “preemptive strike” after receiving intelligence that militants were planning more suicide attacks in various parts of India.
“The existence of such massive training facilities capable of training hundreds of jihadis could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistan authorities,” he said.
India confirmed the airstrike hours after Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for Pakistan’s armed forces, said the warplanes had crossed into the Muzafarabad sector of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, dropping the bombs in the Balakot region, about 50 km (30 miles) from the de facto border.
Ghafoor said Pakistan scrambled its fighter jets and the Indian warplanes dropped their “payload in haste” while escaping. He did not say what he meant by “payload,” a term often used by military officials when referring to explosive warheads carried by a missile or an aircraft.
Ghafoor said there were no casualties, and denied that the incursion had caused damage. “Not even a single brick,” he said, as he posted on Twitter four images of what looked like a forested area with shattered trees, debris and a large crater.
“Indian aircrafts intruded from [the] Muzafarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force [the Indian planes] released [their] payload in haste while escaping,” Ghafoor tweeted, adding that the Indian payload fell near Balakot, a town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Gokhale, the Indian foreign secretary, did not give the number of casualties, but local television channels reported that at least 300 suspected militants had died.
Reuters also quoted a senior Indian government source as saying that 300 had died in the strikes and the warplanes had ventured as far as 80 km (50 miles) inside Pakistan. But Indian officials have not provided evidence to back up their claims of casualties.
The airstrikes occurred less than two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned that terror groups would pay “a heavy price” for the car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police who were riding in a convoy along a highway in Pulwama, a district of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Pakistan has denied allegations of providing sanctuary to JeM, which has been on a United Nations terror list since 2001.
A ‘non-military’ action
Gokhale, in his statement posted on the foreign ministry’s website, did not say how many warplanes were involved. Indian TV network News18 said 12 Mirage 2000 jets had crossed into Pakistani airspace.
Noting that Islamabad had taken no concrete actions to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil, Gokhale said the airstrike was a “non-military” preemptive action that specifically targeted the JeM camp.
Analysts told BenarNews that the term “non-military” meant that the attack was on a terrorist camp and did not intend to challenge the Pakistan army.
The incident marked one of the rarest times since the bitter partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 that India’s Air Force flew fighter jets across the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto boundary that separates the Indian- and Pakistani-claimed sides of Kashmir, according to Indian news websites.
Political analysts told BenarNews that the airstrikes could be linked to the Indian general election expected to take place in April or May.
“India is gearing up for a general election and by striking some terror camps across the LoC, Modi’s BJP-led government believes that it will win votes. But this small act will not stop terror handlers in Pakistan from fostering terror in India,” Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Institute of Conflict Management, told BenarNews.
“The fact of the matter is that India does not have sufficient ammunition to fight a war with Pakistan for even a fortnight,” he said.
Others believe only a dialogue could help end hostilities between the two neighbors.
“Violence begets violence,” said Mohammad Yusuf, a former education officer in Indian-administered Kashmir. “This [attack] will only escalate tensions between India and Pakistan.”
“Dialogue is the only way forward to bring an end to hostilities and resolve the Kashmir issue, which is the main source of discontent between two countries,” he told BenarNews.
Hours after the airstrike, Modi, who is in a re-election campaign, told a rally in the northern Rajasthan state that India was “in safe hands.”
“I won’t let the country stop, I won’t let the country bow down,” he said hours after the raid, according to India Today. Modi did not directly mention the airstrike, local reports said, but he had earlier threatened a “jaw-breaking” response to the Feb. 14 bomb attack in Kashmir.
Other Indian officials said the airstrike showed that New Delhi was determined to act against Pakistan.
“They say they want India to bleed with a 1,000 cuts. We say that each time you attack us, be certain we will get back at you, harder and stronger,” Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Vijay Kumar Singh tweeted. Singh was former chief of the Indian army.
Modi and his Pakistan counterpart, Imran Khan, both called for emergency meetings with their ministers after the attack, local reports said.
Reuters, quoting an unidentified military spokesman, said Pakistan on Wednesday would convene its National Command Authority, which decides over the use of nuclear weapons.
“You all know what that means,” the news agency quoted the spokesman as saying.
China, Pakistan’s longtime ally, urged the two neighbors to control themselves.
“We hope the two sides will exercise restraint and take actions that will help stabilize situation in the region and improve bilateral relations, not the contrary,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing, according to a transcript of his news conference published online.
“Harmonious relations between the two are crucial to peace, stability and development in South Asia and serve the interests of India and Pakistan fundamentally,” he said.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Indian diplomats met foreign ambassadors to assure them no escalation was planned, according to Reuters.
In 2016, following a Pakistani attack on an Indian army base in Uri town in Kashmir, Indian security forces crossed over into Pakistan to destroy terrorist bases, a mission that India dubbed as a “surgical strike.”
Muslim-majority Kashmir, a region in the Himalayan Mountains that is claimed by both India and Pakistan, has grappled with a separatist insurgency that has killed more than 70,000 people since the late 1980s.
India and Pakistan said the camp targeted by the Indian warplanes was at Balakot, but officials from the two sides have not provided detail on the alleged location of the militant training camp. It also remained unclear if there were any casualties at all.
Pakistani military officials had escorted reporters near the town of Balakot where authorities said the payload had been released.
Residents described hearing at least four explosions overnight, but said the damage had been minimal.
“There is one house near the place whose wall has collapsed, and one person got minor injuries,” 25-year-old Zubari Afzal was quoted by AFP as saying.
The journalists said they saw several large craters, including one roughly six feet deep and equally wide, a few trees that had been snapped in half, and villagers wondering why they had been targeted.
“There are only mud-brick homes here,” 55-year-old Noor Shah, who lived about a half-kilometer (a third of a mile) from the site, told the Associated Press (AP). “There isn't even a concrete house.”
Two of the dried mud structures were damaged in the explosions but no one was hurt, Tahir Khan, a 45-year-old village resident, also told the news agency.
“No one has been killed, no one has been seriously hurt. But we want to know, what have we done that we were attacked?” Khan said.
Rohit Wadhwaney in New Delhi and Mohammad Amin Pirzada in Srinagar, India contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported that the Indian airstrike into Pakistani airspace was unprecedented and that at least 46 troops were killed in the car-bombing.