Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on Monday refused to state the number of casualties from the cross-border air strike carried out by the Indian Air Force on February 26. “We can’t count how many people died, it depends on how many people were there,” he said.
“That statement will be made by the government, the air force is not in a position to clarify how many people were inside the target,” he told reporters in Coimbatore.
Multiple media reports, quoting unidentified officials, had pegged the number of casualties of the air strike that targeted a Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Pakistan’s Balakot at over 300, and some estimated it at even 600. The Indian Air Force, however, had refused to give any number officially even earlier, and said it would be premature to give an estimate. However, on Sunday, BJP chief Amit Shah had claimed that more than 250 terrorists were killed in the operation.
The strike was in retaliation to the Pulwama suicide attack on February 14, in which 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed. The bombing was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad, led by Pakistan-based Masood Azhar.
Dhanoa on Monday said the Indian Air Force had hit its intended target, which had been clarified by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale. Hours after the pre-dawn operation, Gokhale said India had carried out “non-military preemptive” strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammad’s biggest terror camp after receiving credible intelligence that the outfit was attempting suicide attacks in various parts of the country.
“When we plan to hit a target, we hit the target,” said Dhanoa. “Otherwise, why would they [Pakistan] have responded?”
On February 27, Pakistan in return had claimed that its Air Force had struck “non-military” targets across the Line of Control in a show of its capability, and had shot down two Indian aircraft that tried to respond. India said it had shot down a Pakistani jet that tried to target military installations. A pilot of the Indian Air Force, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken in custody by Pakistan after his MiG-21 Bison was shot down. He was later released and came back to India on Friday night.
Dhanoa said that Pakistan would not have felt the need to respond if the IAF had dropped bombs in a jungle. Pakistan’s Climate Change Minister Malik Amin Aslam had earlier claimed that the IAF jets had bombed a “forest reserve” and damaged dozens of pine trees.
‘All aircraft are capable of fighting the enemy’
Responding to why the MiG-21 Bison was used to chase away Pakistani fighter jets, Dhanoa said the aircraft was an upgraded version and was capable of retaliation. “The Mig-21 Bison is a capable aircraft, it has been upgraded, it has better radar, air-to air missiles and better weapons system,” he said. “When the adversary attacks you, every aircraft available is used. All aircraft are capable of fighting the enemy.”
His comments were in contrast to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement over the weekend that several Indians feel the result of the IAF strike would have been different if only the country had used Rafale jets. He had blamed the delay in procuring the jets to the self-interest and politics played by the Opposition.
Dhanoa added that the Rafale jet should come into India’s inventory by September.
Expressing happiness at having Varthaman back home, Dhanoa said medical fitness would determine if the pilot would get into the cockpit soon. “That is why post-ejection, he has undergone a medical check,” said Dhanoa. “Whatever treatment is required will be given to him. Once he gets his medical fitness, he will get into the fighter cockpit.”