NEW DELHI: India said it launched air strikes on a militant camp in Pakistani territory on Tuesday (Feb 26), in a major escalation of tensions between the two countries.
Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told a media briefing that the raid on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) camp at Balkot was launched because New Delhi believed suicide attacks in India were “imminent”.
“In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,” Gokhale said.
“The existence of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities.”
He added that “a very large number” of militants was killed in the strike in Balakot, a town in a remote valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, but did not provide a precise figure for the casualties.
READ: India vs Pakistan: a history of conflict over Kashmir
JeM was the group that claimed credit for a suicide car bomb attack which killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on Feb 14.
Pakistan denies harbouring JeM, a primarily anti-India group that forged ties with Al Qaeda and has been on a UN terror list since 2001. In December 2001, its fighters, along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, launched an attack on India’s parliament, which almost resulted in the two countries going to war for a fourth time.
PAKISTAN SAYS WARPLANES CHASED OFF INDIA’S AIRCRAFT
Pakistan downplayed the severity of Tuesday’s air strike, saying its own warplanes had chased off the Indian aircraft, which had released their “payload” in a forested area, causing no casualties and no serious material damage.
In a tweet, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said that “facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force”, the Indian aircraft “released payload in haste, while escaping, which fell near Balakot.
“No casualties or damage”.
Following the statement from Pakistan, India’s foreign secretary said: “A very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen (suicide) action were eliminated.”
An Indian junior minister also said the air strike across the Kashmir ceasefire line “completely destroyed” a militant camp.
“Air Force carried out aerial strike early morning today at terror camps across the LoC and completely destroyed it,” minister of state for agriculture, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, said in English on Twitter, referring to the Line of Control that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir.
READ: Kashmir car bomb kills 44; India demands Pakistan act against militants
Balakot is about 50km from the Line of Control, which acts as a de facto border between the two countries that have fought three wars since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Shelling across the Kashmiri LoC has frequently occurred over the last few years, while tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours have been simmering. Airspace violations, however, are rare.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned India not to challenge Pakistan, and said “better sense should prevail in India”, according to a statement cited by state-run Radio Pakistan.
“The foreign minister said the nation should not be worried over the Indian act as the defenders of the country are fully prepared to respond to any misadventure,” Radio Pakistan added on its website.