A day after the government said Indian Air Force planes had entered Pakistani air space in order to strike at Jaish-e-Mohammed training camps, tensions mounted between the two countries. On February 27, amid ceasefire violations on the Line of Control and the International Border, both India and Pakistan claimed to have shot down planes from the other side.
In a televised statement aired soon afterwards, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said they were ready for dialogue and that neither country could afford a war. Yet, earlier that day, the Pakistan government also posted the video of an Indian Air Force pilot allegedly captured across the Line of Control. It later withdrew it, but the Indian government lodged a strong protest, pointing out that posting videos of a prisoner of war violated the Geneva Convention. In the evening, Pakistan also retracted an earlier statement claiming two planes had been shot down, scaling it down to one plane and one pilot.
Discrepancies remain between the accounts of the day’s events given out on either side of the border.
What India said
At 3.15 pm, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, flanked by Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, read out the ministry’s official statement. It said that Pakistan had responded to Indian operations against Jaish camps on January 26 by using its air force to target military installations on the Indian side. It was detected and the “Indian Air Force responded instantly”. During an “aerial engagement”, a Pakistani fighter plane was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian Air Force. It was seen “falling from the sky on the Pakistan side”. It acknowledged that India had also lost a MiG 21, and a pilot was “missing in action”.
Earlier in the day, news agency ANI had reported that a Pakistan F-16 jet was shot down in “Indian retaliatory fire”, three kilometres into Pakistani territory in the Lam Valley of the Nowshera Sector across the border. News agency PTI had also quoted officials saying Pakistani jets had violated Indian air space in the Nowshera sector of Jammu’s Rajouri district. They had dropped bombs on their way back, the report claimed.
What Pakistan said
On the morning of February 27, the Pakistan Foreign Office issued a statement saying the country’s air force “undertook strikes across Line of Control from within Pakistani airspace”. It aimed at a “non military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage”. The attack was meant to assert Pakistan’s “right, will and capability for self defence”, the statement said. It did not wish to escalate, but was prepared to do so if “forced into that paradigm”. India, the statement said, was “striking at so-called terrorist backers without a shred of evidence”.
Major General Asif Ghafoor, director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, also tweeted from his official account to say, “In response to PAF strikes this morning as released by MoFA, IAF crossed LOC. PAF shot down two Indian aircrafts inside Pakistani airspace.” According to Ghafoor, one of the aircraft fell in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir while the other fell on the Indian side of the Line of Control. One Indian pilot was arrested, he said, while two others were in the area.
In a press conference in the afternoon, Ghafoor claimed that two Indian pilots had been arrested; one was injured and in hospital. He also said that Pakistan had “engaged six targets across LoC from within Pakistani airspace”. The targets were “open space where there were no humans or military installations”.
Soon afterwards, the Pakistan government released a clip which appeared to show the arrested Indian Air Force pilot. The individual in the video identified himself as “Wing Commander Abhinandan”. It soon deleted the video. But other videos emerged, showing the same individual drinking tea with Pakistani officials, saying that he was being treated well.
A few questions
This much is clear: both countries deployed their air forces against each other. But many of the particulars are still cloudy.
First, the case of the disappearing pilots. Ghafoor’s first statement suggested they had one in custody and two “in the area”, which would mean a total of three pilots. Then he suggested two pilots were in custody, one [of them] injured in hospital. By evening, Pakistan claimed to have only shot down one plane, and one pilot in custody, which would tally with Indian claims. What accounts for the earlier numbers?
Second, while Pakistan claims to have launched strikes from within its airspace, official sources here claimed Indian air space had been violated. Where exactly did the “aerial engagement” described by Kumar take place?
Third, Pakistan claimed to have engaged six targets, though it did not specify where. While news agency reports suggested Pakistani planes had dropped bombs on their way out of Rajouri and Poonch districts, were all the targets concentrated in these areas? How many of these were “detected” by the Indian Air Force?
Fourth, while Pakistan claimed it aimed at “non-military targets”, India said “military installations” had been the object of the strikes. Besides, what were Pakistani fighter planes targeting in “open space”?
Fifth, what happened to the Pakistan F-16 that was allegedly shot down by Indian air forces? There has been no official confirmation of it.
As the second day after Indian operations in Pakistan draws to a close on Wednesday, these questions have piled up on older questions. As India claimed it had struck non-military targets in Pakistan to pick out training camps of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, several aspect of the operations were not clear: how many locations were targeted, how many casualties there were, how long the strike lasted and how deep inside Pakistani territory they took place. As anxieties mount on either side, both governments should clear the fog of doubts and discrepancies.