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India says it carried out a “pre-emptive” air strike on a terrorist training camp in Pakistan on Tuesday, in a sharp escalation of tensions between the countries following a deadly terror attack in Kashmir earlier this month.
Pakistan vowed to retaliate after Indian air force jets bombed what New Delhi said was a key training camp run by the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad. India had said it would strike back against the organisation which had claimed responsibility for the killing of 40 Indian paramilitary police in a suicide bombing on February 14.
New Delhi had “credible intelligence . . . that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country, and the fedayeen [militant] jihadis were being trained for this purpose”, Vijay Keshav Gokhale, India’s foreign secretary, said, adding that a number of militants were killed.
New Delhi said the camp was located near Balakot in Pakistan, 100km north of the capital Islamabad and close to the border with the disputed Kashmir region. India said it was run by Yousuf Azhar, the brother-in-law of the JeM chief Masood Azhar. It blames JeM for a series of high-profile terror attacks on its territory in recent decades, including the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.
A spokesman for the Pakistan military said the Indian warplanes crossed the so-called line of control into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir for the first time since 1971, when the two countries went to war over East Pakistan’s move to break away from Islamabad and secure its independence as Bangladesh.
The Indian warplanes appear to have hit the camp in Pakistan by releasing their weapons over the disputed region, which is split between the two countries but claimed in its entirety by both.
Pakistan’s National Security Council accused India in a statement of “uncalled for aggression” and threatened to respond “at the time and the place of its choosing”.
Rejecting claims that the air strike had resulted in heavy casualties, it added that the “Indian government has resorted to a self-serving reckless and fictitious claim”. It said the air strikes were carried out for Indian “domestic consumption” as the Modi government prepares for parliamentary elections this year.
Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for Pakistan’s armed forces, posted photos on Twitter purporting to be the location of the air strike, showing fragments of ordnance and shells on a forested hillside.
Tensions between India and Pakistan have surged since the Kashmir attacks, when a suicide bomber drove an explosive laden vehicle into a military convoy.
JeM claimed responsibility and New Delhi alleged that Islamabad had provided “full freedom” to the organisation to attack India with impunity. Islamabad denied any involvement but pledged to crack down on those responsible if New Delhi provided “actionable intelligence”.
The ratcheting up of tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours comes at a sensitive time for India ahead of national elections.
Mr Modi had vowed retribution for the deaths, saying he had given India’s security forces “full freedom” to plan a response, and members of his government were quick to celebrate Tuesday morning’s air strikes.
“They say they want India to bleed with 1,000 cuts. We say that be certain each time you attack us, we will get back at you harder and stronger,” tweeted junior foreign minister VK Singh, a retired general.
Amit Shah, the president of Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted that the strike was an example of the prime minister’s “strong & decisive” leadership.
Analysts said it was unclear if the air strike would lead to an escalation of military hostilities.
“The ball is now in Pakistan’s court,” said Uday Bhaskar, an Indian defence analyst. “This is a significant response — the first use of air power since the 1971 war — but all the signalling from India about how they are trying to package this is that it’s only directed at terrorism and the terror infrastructure, and it does not in any way threaten the territorial integrity of Pakistan.”
Vipin Narang, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Islamabad’s effort to play down the extent of the damage suggested it was trying to de-escalate the situation. But he warned that excessive Indian triumphalism could fuel demands by the Pakistani public for a robust response.
“There is a certain amount that Pakistan would accept as long as India doesn’t gloat about it,” Prof Narang said. “But if India releases bomb damage assessment video and pushes the point, it is significant enough that Pakistan may have no choice but to retaliate.”
In 2016, India carried out what it described as a “surgical strike” on so-called “terror launch pads” across the line of control in territory held by Pakistan, after militants allegedly associated with JeM attacked an Indian army base and killed 18 soldiers.
At that time, Islamabad also denied that there had been any casualties and tensions subsequently abated.
India and Pakistan have fought three open wars and a fourth undeclared military conflict over the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, which both sides claim.
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