India Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale confirmed at a press conference on Tuesday that the Indian Air Force had carried out a strike inside Pakistan, targeting a Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp. “A very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists, trainers, commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen [suicide] action” have been killed, he said.
He said that India had carried out a “non-military pre-emptive” action against the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s biggest terror camp, in Balakot early on Tuesday. He added that credible intelligence had received that the Jaish-e-Mohammed was attempting other terror attacks in various parts of India and that “fidayeen jihadis” were being trained for this purpose. “In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,” Gokhale said.
The air strike is a response to the Jaish-e-Mohammad attack on paramilitary forces in Pulwama in Kashmir on February 14, which claimed the lives of over 40 troops. Jaish chief Maulana Masood Azhar has his headquarters in Pakistan’s Bahawalpur, Gokhale said. The Jaish was designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations in 2001.
This Balakot facility was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar (alias Ustad Ghouri), the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, Gokhale.
“Pakistan has taken no action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil,” he said.
According to ANI, 12 Mirage 2000 jets took part in the operation at around 3.30 am. The jets crossed the Line of Control and completely destroyed the target.
Gokhale said that when India selected the target, it aimed to ensure that civilian casualties would be avoided. The facility that was attacked is located in thick forest, on a hilltop, far away from any civilian presence, he said.
According to NDTV, following the strike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security to take stock of developments. The meeting was attended by Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitely, Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
At 5.12 am, Major General Asif Ghafoor of the Pakistan Army claimed on Twitter that the Indian Air Force had violated the Line of Control. He said that Pakistani jets were scrambled and the Indian jets went back into Indian territory. At 7.06 am, the officer claimed that the Indian jets had intruded the Muzafarabad sector and released the payloads in haste after Pakistani response. The payloads fell near Balakot, he claimed, adding that there were no causalities or damage. He also released photographs that claimed to show the effects of the strike.
What we don’t know
At 8.25 am, ANI reported that Indian fighter jets had struck a major terrorist camp across the Line of Control. An hour later, the agency said, “Balakot, Chakothi and Muzaffarabad terror launch pads across the LOC were completely destroyed in IAF air strikes. JeM [Jaish-e-Mohammed] control rooms also destroyed.” However, foreign secretary Gokhale only confirmed a strike on Balakot.
As the Indian media began reporting on the strike, questions emerged on the exact location of the air strike, with many taking to Twitter to point out that there was a Balakote very close to the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The difference was crucial as the other Balakot was well inside Pakistani territory, making it a strike in Pakistan rather than in disputed territory. Gokhale did not clarify on this during the press conference.
Major General Asif Gaffoor of the Pakistan Army took to Twitter again at around 10 am, claiming that the Indian incursion was in Muzafarabad sector within Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
However, the Press Trust of India, quoting unidentified Indian officials, said that the strike was carried out in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
The last major strike carried out by the Indian Air Force in Pakistan was during the 1971 war for Bangladesh liberation. This is the first time before India and Pakistan became nuclear powers. Even during the Kargil war in 1999, the incursions made were described as inadvertent and not specifically planned by the Air Force. In 2016, the Indian Army carried out a surgical strike across the LoC after a terrorist attack in Uri.
The BBC Urdu service reported that villagers in Balakot in Pakistan’s Manshera district claimed that they heard loud blasts between 3 am and 4 am on Tuesday. This is a district in the Hazara division of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and contradicted the claims of the Pakistani Army official on the location of the strike.
ANI reported that the Indian Air Force has put on high alert all air defence systems along the India-Pakistan border and the Line of Control.
Retired Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur told NDTV that since the strikes were on terrorist camps, Pakistan’s options for retaliation was non-existent as there are no terrorist camps on the Indian side of the border. If Pakistan decides to attack government or civilian targets in India, it would be deemed a serious escalation, he said.