New Delhi: India on Thursday said it conducted “surgical strikes” on “terrorist launch pads” in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir along the Line of Control, a claim Pakistan rejected – maintaining that two soldiers were killed in “Indian unprovoked firing” along three sectors of the LoC.
Late Thursday night, Army sources added that a Rashtriya Rifles soldier had “inadvertently” crossed the border and Pakistan had been informed. This was the Indian response following Pakistan media reports that a soldier had been captured after the cross-border firing.
“Based on very specific and credible information that we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves on launch pads along the LoC with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes in Jammu and Kashmir and various other metros in our country, the Indian army conducted surgical strikes last night at these launch pads,” Indian army’s director general of military operations Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh told reporters at a press briefing.
Contrary to the norm, the DGMO briefed the media not at army headquarters but at the Ministry of External Affairs. The last time that there was a joint MEA-MoD press briefing was during the Kargil War in 1999.
Before the briefing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of the cabinet committee on security.
The ‘surgical strikes’ took place eleven days after a pre-dawn attack by militants on an Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri in Kashmir on September 18. The attack left 18 soldiers dead. India and Pakistan were already exchanging verbal barbs for over a month after the Kashmir protests escalated following the killing of Hizbul Mujaidden commander Burhan Wani, but the Uri attack led to increased calls within India for a ‘befitting’ reply.
Singh said that the operations were “basically focussed to ensure that these terrorists do not succeed in their design of infiltration and carrying out destruction and endangering lives of citizens of our country”.
“During these counter terrorist operations, significant casualties have been caused to the terrorists and those who are trying to support them,” he said.
The operations “have since ceased” and there were no plans for further such actions, he said.
Claim is false and irresponsible, says Pakistan
As per a Facebook post by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department before the Indian announcement, two Pakistani soldiers were killed. “Pakistani troops befittingly responded to Indian unprovoked firing on LoC in Bhimber, Hotspring, Kel, and Lipa sectors. Exchange of fire which started at 0230 hrs after midnight continued till 0800 hrs,” it said.
Following the briefing by the Indian DGMO, the ISPR denied that there was any such operation by the Indian army. “There has been no surgical strike by India, instead there had been cross border fire initiated and conducted by India which is existential phenomenon (sic). As per rules of engagement same was strongly and befittingly responded by Pakistani troops,” said the ISPR statement.
“The notion of surgical strike linked to alleged terrorist bases is an illusion being deliberately generated by India to create false effects. This quest by Indian establishment to create media hype by rebranding cross border fire as surgical strike is fabrication of truth. Pakistan has made it clear that if there is a surgical strike on Pakistani soil, same will be strongly responded,” it added.
Later in the day, a Pakistani foreign office statement echoed those words, rejecting Indian claims of surgical strikes as “falsified, concocted and irresponsible”. India, it said, was “trying to make (a) fool of its own people and the international community”.
At the same time, the statement added that “any such aggression” from India “will not go unanswered or unpunished”.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also issued a statement to condemn the “unprovoked and naked aggression of Indian forces resulting in martyrdom of two Pakistani soldiers along the LOC”.
He is expected to come under rising domestic pressure, with opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairperson Imran Khan stating that his rally on Friday will show “Nawaz Sharif how to respond to Modi”.
Later on Thursday evening, Indian high commissioner to Pakistan Gautam Bambawale was summoned by Pakistan’s foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary and handed over a démarche protesting “unprovoked firing” by the Indian army on the LoC.
Chaudhary also conveyed “deep concerns” over the threats made to the Pakistan high commissioner in India Abdul Basit and urged the Indian government to ensure his safety, along with other officials of the Pakistani mission in Delhi. The Pakistan high commission had reportedly received a threat over the phone demanding that Basit return back to his country.
However, none of the Pakistani official statements alluded to the capture of an Indian soldier, as reported by some media organisations.
Indian soldier in Pak custody
Also on Thursday evening, the Indian army issued a clarification that one soldier from 37 Rashtriya Rifles had “inadvertently crossed over to the Pakistan side of the Line of Control”.
“Pakistan has been informed by the DGMO on the hotline. Such inadvertent crossing by army and civilians are not unusual on either side. They are returned through existing mechanisms,” said the statement.
At the same time, reports in the Pakistani media that eight Indian army soldiers were killed were denied as “completely false and baseless”.
After the Indian action ended, the Indian DGMO called up his Pakistani counterpart and made it clear that the army had mounted a counter-terror operation, and therefore the target were the terrorists and not the Pakistan military.
“It is India’s intention to maintain peace and tranquility in the region, but we can certainly not allow the terrorists to operate across the Line of Control with impunity and attack the citizens of our country. In line with Pakistan’s commitment made in January 2004 not to allow its soil or territory under its control for any terrorist activities against India, we expect the Pakistani army to cooperate with us with a view to erase this menace of terrorism from our region,” Lt Gen Singh told reporters.
Indian government officials also told journalists that while the operation was conducted by the military, it was “not a military operation”.
A ‘counter-terrorist’ operation
Earlier, in his opening remarks, the DMGO said that there had been “continuing and increasing infiltration by terrorists across Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir”.
“This is reflected in the terrorist attacks in Poonch and Uri on 11 and 18 September respectively. Almost 20 infiltration attempts have been foiled by the Indian army successfully this year,” he said.
Indian security forces had recovered items including global positioning systems and stores with Pakistani markings during these terrorist attacks and infiltration attempts, he said, adding: “Further, captured terrorists hailing from Pakistan or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have confessed to their training and arming in Pakistan or terrorist under the controlled by Pakistan.”
The damage was limited, claimed the DGMO, “due to the efforts of the Indian army who are deployed in (a) multi-tiered counter infiltration grid and most of the infiltration bids (were) foiled at those locations”. The Indian armed forces have been most vigilant in the face of continuing threats, he said.
India offered consular access to the apprehended terrorists to Pakistan and also proposed that fingerprints and DNA samples of the terrorists killed in the Poonch and Uri attacks can also be made available. Pakistan has not yet responded to this, he said.
The “matter has been taken up at the highest diplomatic levels and military levels at regular time,” said Singh.
No clarity on nature of action, casualties
He provided no details about the “surgical strikes”. Unusually, questions were not allowed at the press briefing, where only a statement was read out.
Later in the day, PTI quoted unnamed sources in the government as saying that seven launch pads were targeted in the strike. Both helicopters and ground forces were used in the operation, which started after midnight at went on till 4:30 am and took place up to 2-3 km from the Line of Control. The Wire is unable to independently confirm these details.
Another highly placed government source who briefed reporters said the operation took place “very close to the line of control”, which could be as close as within one kilometre of the LoC.
There is still no clarity yet on the casualty numbers from the operations, with Indian sources only stating that the numbers were in “two digits”. The Pakistani authorities have been repeating that two soldiers dead from cross border firing and nine injured – which makes for double digit casualties – but there has been no confirmation from Indian side about how these Pakistani casualties occurred. There was also reports of cross-border shelling, but again there is no confirmation that these were during the operations or were separate incidents.
The Indian foreign ministry had already summoned the Pakistani high commissioner twice after the Uri attack to convey its charge that it was launched from Pakistani territory and to submit ‘evidence’ towards the same. Islamabad has claimed that the attack on Indian army station at Uri was a ‘false flag’ operation intended to embarrass Pakistan and divert attention away from the problems in Kashmir.
India has also refused to take part in the SAARC summit in November in Islamabad, stating that the atmosphere was not conducive due to these cross-border attacks from Pakistan. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have also sent similar messages of boycott to the Nepal government, which is the current chair of the regional body. A review of the Indus Waters Treaty to ensure India fully utilises its water share under the pact is another move the government has taken to diplomatically pressurise Pakistan. However, a meeting scheduled on Thursday to review Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan was postponed till next week.
‘Rice was not told in advance’
On Wednesday (Eastern Standard Time), US national security advisor Susan E. Rice called Indian NSA Ajit Doval. As per a White House statement issued Thursday early morning India time, Rice “strongly condemned the September 18 cross-border attack on the Indian Army Brigade headquarters in Uri and offered condolences to the victims and their families”.
Indian sources clarified that this phone call took place before the counter-terror operations. The United States was not informed about the ‘surgical strikes’ prior to their execution, sources insist. The phone call was only about Rice expressing concern about the Uri attack which was mentioned in the statement, they assert.
“Ambassador Rice affirmed President (Barack) Obama’s commitment to redouble our efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of terrorism throughout the world. Highlighting the danger that cross-border terrorism poses to the region, Ambassador Rice reiterated our expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates,” the White House statement said.
Rice also discussed the US’s “shared commitment with India to pursuing peace and regional stability and pledged to deepen collaboration on counterterrorism matters including on UN terrorist designations”.
‘Avoid escalation’, says US
In the aftermath of the Indian announcement about surgical strikes, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters on Thursday that India and Pakistan should “avoid escalation”. He noted that Indian and Pakistani militaries were in communication with one another and encouraged “continued discussions” to avoid increasing the temperature.
According to Reuters, Earnest said he could not speak to “any specific coordination” between India and the United States on the situation. Rice’s phone call to Doval was to convey the fact that Washington was “concerned by the danger that cross-border terrorism poses”.
There was not Chinese reaction to the Indian statement on ‘surgical strikes’ by Indian army in PoK. The only response from the Chinese foreign ministry about India-Pakistan tensions was in response to questions on the India-China counter-terrorism dialogue, SAARC summit boycott and the visit of a Pakistani special envoy on Kashmir. “With regard to India-Pakistan tension, China is in touch with both India and Pakistan through various channels. We hope that they can carry out dialogues to properly resolve disputes and maintain regional peace and security. We have released information of this security dialogue,” said Chinese foreign ministry Geng Shuang.
During the day, foreign secretary S Jaishankar held a special briefing for ambassadors of 22 countries, which included the P5 nations and neighbours, where he repeated that Indian military had conducted targeted operations against terror launchpads.
Indian sources believe that Pakistan has been trapped in a dilemma with its peremptory dismissal of the ‘surgical strikes’. “If Pakistan accepted that the Indian operation was more than cross-border firing, it will be under pressure to retaliate. Since Pakistan has described it as cross-border firing which is a common occurrence, then it shouldn’t feel compelled to take any action,” said a senior official.
As a precautionary measure, border villages along Punjab were reportedly evacuated. The popular retreat ceremony at the Wagah-Attari border was called off by the Border Security Force. In Gujarat, fishermen were told not to go near the international maritime boundary line.