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International relations

India conducts airstrike on alleged terror camp in Pakistan

Islamabad claims incursion led to 'no casualties or damage'

For years now, Kashmir has been a flash point for tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors of Pakistan and India.    © AP

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD -- Indian fighter jets on Tuesday struck alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 40 paramilitary police on Feb. 14.

"In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot," said Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, referring to Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

His statement claimed that "a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for [suicide attacks] were eliminated."

"The government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism," it added.

Quoting Indian Air Force sources, the ANI news agency said that 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets participated in the operation, dropping 1,000 kg of explosives on the targets.

Tensions have escalated between the two nuclear-armed states since the suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled area of the disputed Kashmir region. Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, junior minister for agriculture, said that the predawn attack had "completely destroyed" terrorist camps in Pakistani-controlled territory.

In a tweet posted in a mixture of Hindi and English, the minister said that each drop of blood lost by India would be avenged. "This is just the beginning," he added.

Prakash Javadekar, the minister of human resource development, separately told reporters that the armed forces had taken an "essential step" in defense of the country. "Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has given the armed forces the free hand to take such steps. Our whole country is standing in support with our military."

Hours after the airstrike, Modi, at a rally in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, said: "Let us all salute our brave soldiers today. I want to assure our countrymen that our nation is in safe hands," without directly referring to the strike. "I won't let the country stop. I won't let the country bow down," he said, amid chants of "Modi, Modi," from the crowd.

Foreign Ministry officials briefed foreign envoys on the raid, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, according to sources.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of India's main opposition party, also reacted. "I salute the pilots of the IAF," he tweeted.

Pakistan has confirmed that an incident took place, but said there had been no casualties.

"Indian Air Force violated Line of Control [frontier]. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back," tweeted Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the Pakistani military.

"Indian aircrafts intruded from Muzafarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan [the Indian] Air Force released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage," he added.

A senior Pakistani official who spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review said the "payload" dropped near Balakot, a city in northwestern Pakistan, was "extra fuel tanks dropped by Indian fighter planes as they returned to head back. So far, the debris on the ground does not even prove that these were bombs, let alone big bombs."

The Pakistan Army's decision to play down the claims of a large attack by India, according to Western officials, suggests that Pakistan may be taking a diplomatic tack rather than focusing on a military response.

"The army has told us that it was something of a botched up raid by the Indians, and the reports from Balakot so far do not suggest large-scale casualties," said one Western diplomat who spoke to Nikkei. "I think the Pakistanis may not escalate military pressure. Instead, they will focus on diplomacy," he added.

Pakistan's politicians across the board on Tuesday rallied behind Prime Minister Imran Khan's government, seeking a strong response to the incursion by Indian fighter planes.

"Today, we have to decide if we want to live with honor or not with honor. I believe we have to live with honor," said Syed Fakhar Imam, a former speaker of Pakistan's parliament in a speech in the lower house. Khawaja Asif, a former defense minister from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), called for "a firm national response to India's challenge to Pakistan."

On Monday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi postponed a trip to Japan, citing the "sensitive situation" with India. "The foreign minister felt compelled to stay in Pakistan at this challenging time to focus fully on India," said a senior Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan were created through a bloody partition when the British Raj ended in 1947.

The two countries have fought three major wars since independence, including two over Kashmir. The third war, in 1971, was over East Pakistan, which seceded to become Bangladesh with Indian assistance.

Kashmir remains the core flashpoint in bilateral ties, with India routinely accusing Pakistan of sheltering militants who cross into the Indian-administered area of the region to carry out attacks. Islamabad denies India's claims.

After the attack on Feb. 14, India vowed to take all possible diplomatic steps to isolate Pakistan from the international community, including removal of trade privileges it had extended to its neighbor.

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