India has carried out aerial bombing over the disputed border in Kashmir for the first time since it went to war with Pakistan in 1971, escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
The country’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said in a briefing that Delhi had received credible intelligence that the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed 40 Indian security personnel in a suicide bombing this month, was training fighters for similar attacks at the site.
“In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary,” Gokhale said.
The attack was celebrated in India, but it was unclear on Tuesday whether anything significant had been struck by the fighter jets, or whether the operation had been carefully calibrated to ease popular anger over the 14 February suicide bombing without drawing a major Pakistani reprisal.
Pakistan, which was the first to announce the incursion, said the war planes made it up to five miles inside its territory before they were rebuffed, dropping their payloads without casualties or damage.
Pakistan’s armed forces spokesman, Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor, tweeted on Tuesday morning that the Indian jets had dropped their bombs in an empty forested area. “No infrastructure got hit, no casualties,” he wrote.
Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, said India’s claim that it had hit a terrorist training camp was “a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim”.
“This action has been done for domestic consumption in the election environment, putting regional peace and stability at grave risk,” Khan said, referring to India’s general election which starts in two months.
Pakistan’s army said it would respond to India’s incursion at an unspecified time. “It is your turn now to wait and get ready for our surprise,” Ghafoor said, addressing India’s leaders.
Ghafoor said a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament would be held on Wednesday, followed by a meeting of the National Command Authority, whose responsibilities include overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal.
The attacks overnight followed nearly a fortnight of sabre-rattling between the pair over the southern Kashmir suicide bombing, in which India has claimed Pakistan had a “direct hand”. JeM is based in Pakistan but Islamabad has rejected any responsibility for the attack.
Gokhale said Indian jets struck JeM’s largest training camp in the Balakot area, claiming a “very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis being trained for fidayeen [suicide] action were eliminated.” The facility, which he described as being in thick forest on a hilltop, was far away from any civilian settlements,overseen by the brother-in-law of the JeM chief, Masood Azhar, he added.
Significantly, Balakot is in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, about 50 miles from the line of control and well into accepted Pakistan territory. An attack there would represent an escalation from previous Indian reprisals.
“It changes the game significantly by raising the costs for Pakistan,” said Khalid Shah, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
Islamabad released pictures on social media showing uprooted trees and cratered soil, which it claimed was the extent of the damage from the Indian bombing.
Local media in Pakistan as well as Reuters quoted residents of Balakot who said they heard four to five blasts overnight which damaged homes and left large pockmarks in the ground.
The conflicting narratives over the attack echo India’s claims in September 2016 it sent special forces to destroy militant facilities over the ceasefire border – an attack that Pakistan still maintains never happened.
The opposing positions allowed India to trumpet its reprisal against Pakistan without forcing Islamabad to respond in a way that might spiral into a larger conflict.
Indian ministers lauded the airstrikes. “It was an act of extreme valour,” said Prakash Javadekar, the human resources development minister, in the first official acknowledgement of the operation.
Another minister, Vijay Kumar Singh, posted a picture on Twitter of an eagle with a snake in its talons. “They say they want to bleed India with 1,000 cuts,” he wrote. “We say that each time you attack us, be certain we will get back at you, harder and stronger.”
Despite Pakistan downplaying the impact of the attacks, Khan, whose successful election campaign last year featured strident promises to stand up to India, could still face popular pressure to respond.
“Strategically, it is a disaster for Pakistan that India can keep doing this,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a political analyst and columnist, referring to both Tuesday’s attack and the September 2016 strikes. “What does it say about Pakistan’s red lines that countries like India can keep violating our airspace or claim they have carried out surgical strikes?”
Sherry Rahman, a Pakistani senator and former ambassador the US, said the attack was aimed at Indian PM Narendra Modi’s re-election. “India is giving its own people a message with these strikes; this is for their electorate, the domestic voters.”
While exchanges of artillery and light weapons over the line are very common, intentional incursions by aircraft have not been publicly acknowledged since the two countries fought a war in 1971.
Military planes could be heard over Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, in the early hours of Tuesday morning. There has been a large troop buildup in the region in recent days and doctors have been advised to cancel leave and stockpile medicines.
Several convoys of trucks carrying heavy artillery were being transported on highways to northern Kashmir towards the line of control. Both India and Pakistan were trading heavy mortar fire across the ceasefire line on Tuesday night.
More than 300 Kashmiri separatist activists have been detained in recent days. Hours after the attack on Tuesday morning, officers from the National Investigation Agency raided the Srinagar homes of two veteran separatist leaders, Yasin Malik, who was among those detained at the weekend, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.