New Delhi: After surgical strikes across the LoC in 2016, India retaliated for the February 14 Pulwama attack by launching a predawn surgical strike on Tuesday, this time by air.
The IAF’s Mirage-2000 fighter aircraft bombed terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM’s) biggest training camp in Balakot in the KPK province of Pakistan, killing “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen (suicide terror) action”.
This was the first time since the 1971 war that IAF fighters crossed the LoC, something they did not do even during the Kargil conflict of 1999.
Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said the terror camp was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar alias Ustad Ghouri, brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar, and that “credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country”.
The foreign secretary termed it a “preemptive strike” and also “non-military preemptive action, specifically targeted at the JeM camp”.
Mr Gokhale said the terror camp was “located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence”.
Confusion initially persisted whether the camp that was struck was in KPK province of Pakistan or in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as both locations contain towns known as Balakot/ Balakote but sources told this newspaper this was the one in KPK.
According to some reports, Yousuf Azhar himself may have been killed in the strike.
Sources said that India’s air defence systems and armed forces have been put on high alert to thwart any attempt by Pakistan to retaliate. But the Indian forces are bracing themselves for a Pakistani retaliation. While dismissing India’s version of events as “fictitious”, Pakistan nevertheless accused India of “committing uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing”.
According to sources, five to six French-origin Mirage 2000 fighters took part in the strike, with about six bombs of 1,000 kg being dropped on the camp.
The entire operation took over 20 minutes, starting at 3.45 am and ending at 4.05 am.
To confuse the Pakistani defence forces, fighter aircraft took off from several air bases in the Western and Central commands in a synchronised operation, at about the same time.
Then a small group of aircraft broke away from the swarm and headed to hit the Balakot camp.
According to some reports, early-warning system AWACS were used to keep an eye on any action emanating from Pakistan and mid-air refuellers were also deployed for any emergency use.
Sources said around 325 terrorists were present in the camp and perished when the IAF planes struck it. Balakot in KPK is 60km by air from the LoC and 180km by road.
Sources also said that JeM used to run basic arms training and advance arms training camp and Border Action Team training at the camp.
Meanwhile, admitting that the IAF fighter aircraft had crossed the LoC “in Muzaffarabad sector (of KPK) upto three to four miles”, the Pakistan Army claimed that the Pakistan Air Force had scrambled its fighter aircraft in response, following which the IAF fighters “went back”.
The Pakistan Army also claimed that IAF fighter aircraft had released their “payload in haste”, which “fell near Balakot” (in KPK) in “open area” and that there were no casualties or destruction of any infrastructure.
A statement issued from Islamabad said, Pakistan “strongly rejected the Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot and the claim of heavy casualties”, adding that Indian “has resorted to a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim”.
Islamabad also accused New Delhi of “putting regional peace and stability at grave risk”, adding that the “domestic and international media would be taken to the impact site”.
In what was an indication of political will and resolve, photographs on Tuesday morning showed a meeting — held after the strike — presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and flanked by External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, finance minister Arun Jaitley, home minister Rajnath Singh and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman apart from NSA Ajit Doval and Mr Gokhale.
Experts point out that India’s emphasis of it being a “non-military preemptive action” was a clear signal to the rest of the world, including Pakistan, that the strike was not aimed at the Pakistan military or civilians but that it was aimed only at a terror camp to neutralise a planned terror attack on India.
Addressing reporters, Mr Gokhale said, “In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of Tuesday, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. This facility at Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar alias Ustad Ghouri, the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, chief of JeM.”
Pakistan army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, however, claimed in a series of tweets that, “Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts (have) gone back. 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.”...