New Delhi: Indian Air Force fighter jets went across to the Line of Control early on Tuesday morning. India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a press briefing at 11:30 am that a terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot was destroyed, and a large number of terrorists were eliminated.
The foreign secretary described the air strike as “non-military” preemptive action, and said it was “absolutely necessary” as the government had “credible intelligence” that the Jaish-e-Mohammad was attempting more suicide terror attacks in various parts of the country and fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose.
The terror camp that was destroyed, Gokhale said, was run by Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law, Maulana Yousuf Azhar. It was targeted as it was far away from civilian settlements and the strike would not lead to any civilian casualties.
“The existence of such massive training facilities capable to training hundreds of jihadis could not have functioned without knowledge of the Pakistani authorities,” Gokhale said.
Gokhale hit out at Islamabad for not taking action despite knowing about possible terror camps. “India has been repeatedly urging Pakistan to take action against the JeM to prevent jihadis from being trained and armed inside Pakistan. Pakistan has taken no concrete action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil,” he said.
As in the press conference after the 2016 surgical strikes, only a statement was read out and there was no Q&A. However, while in 2016 the media was addressed by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence, this time only the foreign secretary was present.
(Read the foreign secretary’s full statement here.)
Pakistan denies damage
News of the air strike emerged, ironically, from Pakistan with its military spokesperson claiming earlier in the morning that Indian planes had entered Pakistani airspace, that they had been intercepted and released their “payload early”, without any casualties.
In his first public response to the air strikes, aired on state-run channel PTV, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called them a “grave aggression”. “We had been telling the world that India could take such action,” he said. Terming the air strikes a violation of the Line of Control, he said that Pakistan reserves the right to a “suitable” response and “self-defence”.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called a meeting of the National Security Council to review the situation at the LoC, Radio Pakistan reported.
After the meeting, a government press release said the NSC decided that “Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing” to India’s “aggression”.
“PM has directed that elements of national power including the armed forces and the people of Pakistan to remain prepared for all eventualities,” the release said.
A special joint session of parliament will be convened. The National Command Authority, which is the apex supervisory body of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals, will also meet on February 27, said the press note.
Pakistan’s national security forum “strongly rejected” the claim that a terrorist camp near Balakot had been targeted with heavy casualties. “Once again Indian government has resorted to a self serving, reckless and fictitious claim,” it said.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Qureshi said that local and international media would be taken to the site of the bombing. “The helicopters are ready. If the weather permits, then they will be taken there so they could inspect themselves and expose the Indian propaganda,” he said.
He stated that the international community will be “engaged” at the level of the foreign office and prime minister. At today’s meeting of the OIC contact group on Kashmir, “we will present Pakistan’s point of view at that forum”, he added.
In the evening, Pakistan’s acting foreign secretary summoned India’s deputy high commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia over eight Indian aircraft violating “Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” at 2:54 am on February 26. India’s high commissioner Ajay Bisaria has been in Delhi for “consultations” after the Pulwama attack.
India briefs envoys
In diplomatic briefings on Tuesday, India told foreign envoys stationed in Delhi that it doesn’t want to see any “escalation” after the airstrikes. They also said that this was a responsible step taken only after Pakistan repeatedly refused to take action against Jaish-e-Mohammed.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj also had telephonic conversations with her counterparts in the United States, China, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Singapore on Tuesday.
Pakistan claimed the bombs fell near Balakot, but did not clarify its precise location. Gokhale too mentioned Balakot in his briefing, but did not go any further.
Balakot (marked with a red star above) is a town in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and not Pakistan-occupied Kashmir so the Indian air strike was not just a ‘cross-Line-of-Control’ operation but involved entering Pakistan proper. The second Balakot is a village just across the LoC, marked above by an orange star.
In a subsequent tweet, the Pakistani military spokesman said the target was just across the Line of Control: “Indian aircrafts’ intrusion across LOC in Muzafarabad Sector within AJ&K was 3-4 miles.Under forced hasty withdrawal aircrafts released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties. Technical details and other important information to follow.”
However, according to BBC Urdu, villagers in Manshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said they heard four to five loud blasts between 3 am and 4 am on Tuesday. Balakot is in Manshera district.
A Reuters report from Balakot also said that villagers heard four loud bangs. They said that only one person was injured. “We saw trees fallen down and one house damaged and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” a villager who reportedly visited the site told Reuters.
The airstrikes come in the aftermath of the February 14 suicide bomb attack on a convoy of Central Reserve Police Force personnel, which killed more than 40 troopers on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The attack at Pulwama in south Kashmir was claimed by the Pakistan-based terror outfit, the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Reactions to the airstrikes
Indian Air Force sources told ANI that close to 3:30 am, around 12 Mirage jets took part in an operation that dropped 1,000 kg bombs on “terror camps across Line of Control”.
IAF Sources: 12 Mirage 2000 jets took part in the operation that dropped 1000 Kg bombs on terror camps across LOC, completely destroying it pic.twitter.com/BP3kIrboku
— ANI (@ANI) February 26, 2019
The first reports of the Indian air strikes were made by the Pakistan army spokesperson at around 5 am.
Indian aircrafts intruded from Muzafarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) February 26, 2019
Two hours later, the Pakistani army spokesperson tweeted that the Indian planes “released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot”.
Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) February 25, 2019
In a subsequent tweet, the Pakistani spokesperson posted purported photographs of the damage wrought by Indian bombs:
Payload of hastily escaping Indian aircrafts fell in open. pic.twitter.com/8drYtNGMsm
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) February 26, 2019
The first official confirmation from India came in the form of tweets and comments from ministers in the Narendra Modi government.
Minister of state for external affairs General V.K. Singh said that Indian will get back at Pakistan for every attack, “harder and stronger”.
They say they want India to bleed with a 1000 cuts. We say that each time you attack us, be certain we will get back at you, harder and stronger. Salute the brave pilots of the @IAF_MCC that carried out the strikes. #JaiHind pic.twitter.com/3dLvr5oX0B
— Vijay Kumar Singh (@Gen_VKSingh) February 26, 2019
Union human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar said the strikes were a “necessary step”.
Minister of state for agriculture and farmers’ welfare called it “just the beginning”.
ये मोदी का हिंदुस्तान है, घर में घुसेगा भी और मारेगा भी,
Air Force carried out aerial strike early morning today at terror camps across the LoC and Completely destroyed it
एक एक क़तरा ख़ून का हिसाब होगा !ये तो एक शुरुआत है .. ये देश नहीं झुकने दूंगा…#Balakot #Surgicalstrike2 pic.twitter.com/fqYJgWxuqX
— Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (@gssjodhpur) February 26, 2019
A meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security was conducted at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence in the morning.
Unlike the CCS meeting held for the September 2016 surgical strikes, intelligence and military officials were either not present for Tuesday’s meeting or were not photographed. This, as well as only the foreign secretary making the public statement, is likely a deliberate move by India to reiterate the “non-military” nature of the strike.
China has reportedly urged both India and Pakistan to “remain restrained” and improve bilateral ties. “India and Pakistan are both important countries in South Asia. Sound relations and cooperation serve the interest of both countries for peace and stability in South Asia,” Indian Express quoted the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson as saying.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted after the air strikes, saluting the IAF.
?? I salute the pilots of the IAF. ??
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) February 26, 2019
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also tweeted on similar lines.
I salute the bravery of Indian Air Force pilots who have made us proud by striking terror targets in Pakistan
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) February 26, 2019
Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati said that the Modi government should have given the security forces a ‘free hand’ to respond to terror attacks much earlier, as this would have avoided more Indian deaths.
पीएम ने पुलवामा के जवानों की शहादत के बदले में कार्रवाई करने के लिये अब जो फ्री हैण्ड सेना को दिया है अगर यह फैसला मोदी सरकार द्वारा पहले ले लिया गया होता तो पठानकोट, ऊरी व पुलवामा जैसी अति-दुःखद व अति-चिन्तित करने वाली घटनायें नहीं होती और न ही इतने जवान शहीद होते।
— Mayawati (@Mayawati) February 26, 2019
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said that since Pakistan was not reporting any casualties, “they should adopt a conciliatory stand”. If the situation escalates, she argued, “Kashmiris will the biggest casualties”.
Since Pak has claimed that no casualties were reported despite IAF violating LoC ,they should adopt a reconciliatory stand as opposed to further escalation. Or else, an already volatile situation will spiral out of control and as usual Kashmiris will be the biggest casualties.
— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) February 26, 2019
Omar Abdullah, also a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, tweeted that any judgment about the air strike would depend on the precise location hit:
If this is Balakote in KPK it’s a major incursion & a significant strike by IAF planes. However if it’s Balakote in Poonch sector, along the LoC it’s a largely symbolic strike because at this time of the year forward launch pads & militant camps are empty & non-functional.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) February 26, 2019
In September 2016, the Indian government had announced that it had conducted ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control through a joint press conference of Ministry of External affairs and Ministry of Defence. The ‘surgical strikes’ had taken place about 11 days after a terror attack on Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri, Kashmir.
Meanwhile, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is scheduled to leave Delhi on Tuesday for China to attend the trilateral meeting with foreign ministers of China and Russia on February 27 at Wuzhen
On Tuesday, Pakistan had called for an emergency meeting of the OIC contact group on Kashmir at Jeddah. India has already been invited by host UAE as the ‘guest of honour’ to address the inaugural plenary of the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting on March 1.
There had been worldwide condemnation of the Pulwama terror attack. However, only the United States publicly named Pakistan in their statements. India had released a read-out of a phone call between the Indian and US national security advisors in which the latter apparently accepted India’s right to “self-defence”.
India had immediately withdrawn Most Favoured Nation status from Pakistan and also imposed 200% customs duty on Pakistani goods. South Block also began a series of diplomatic briefings of foreign ambassadors, calling for specific action against Pakistan.
A week later, the United Nations Security Council issued a press statement on the Pulwama which identified Jaish-e-Mohammed as having claimed responsibility for the attack.
Diplomatic efforts were also afoot led by France and the UK to lead another initiative for the listing of JeM chief Masood Azhar as a designated global terrorist by UNSC’s 1267 sanctions committee. However, China has still not given any indication that it has changed its mind over its technical hold on the listing. Swaraj was expected to directly take this up with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi during her bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the RIC trilateral ministerial summit.
There were also phone calls from world capitals to New Delhi and Islamabad over the last two weeks. The latest one was by the British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday night (February 25), where he apparently both countries “find diplomatic solutions that will create greater stability and trust in the region”. Hunt also said that UK was “working with both India and Pakistan, as well as international partners at the UN, to ensure that those responsible for the attack are held to account”.
On February 22, the money-laundering watchdog, Financial Action Task Force, announced that Pakistan remains on the grey list, noting that “it does not demonstrate a proper understanding of the TF (Terror Financing) risks posed by Da’esh, AQ (Al-Qaeda), JuD (Jamaat-ud-Dawa), FiF (Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation), LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba), JeM, HQN (Haqqani Network), and persons affiliated with the Taliban”.
On the same day, the Pakistan interior ministry announced that it taken “administrative control” of a mosque-and-seminary complex in Bahawalpur, which allegedly belonged to the JeM.
Pakistan continues to insist that India is pointing fingers in haste, without conducting any investigation. India had noted that there was enough evidence of Pakistani involvement in the shape of the video of the suicide bomber and the JeM’s claim of responsibility.