PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan says India launched an airstrike on its territory early Tuesday that caused no casualties, while India said it targeted a terrorist training camp in a pre-emptive strike that killed a “very large number” of militants.
The overnight raid was the latest escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals since a deadly suicide bombing in the disputed Kashmir region this month killed more than 40 Indian soldiers. Pakistan has denied involvement in the attack and has vowed to respond to any Indian military operation against it.
The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility. The bomber, who made a video before the attack, was a resident of Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir.
Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor, said Indian “aircrafts” crossed into the Muzafarabad sector of Kashmir, which is split between the two countries and claimed by each in its entirety. He said Pakistan scrambled fighters and the Indian jets “released payload in haste” near Balakot, on the edge of Pakistani-ruled part of Kashmir.
India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, told reporters in New Delhi that Indian fighter aircraft targeted Jaish-e-Mohammad camps in a pre-emptive strike after intelligence indicated another attack was being planned.
“Acting on intelligence, India early today stuck the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad in Balakot,” he said. “In this operation a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis being trained were eliminated.”
Balakot police chief Saghir Hussain Shah told The Associated Press that he sent teams to the area where the Indian bombs hit, which he described as a mostly deserted wooded area.
“There are no casualties, there are no damages on the ground because of the dropping of the bombs,” he said. There was no immediate explanation for the differing accounts, but India and Pakistan routinely contradict one another.
The Feb. 14 attack in Indian-ruled Kashmir was the worst attack on Indian forces since the start of the 1989 insurgency in Kashmir and came as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the middle of a re-election campaign.
Addressing a rally of former soldiers in the Indian state of Rajasthan on Tuesday, just hours after the airstrike, Modi said India was in “safe hands.”
“I vow that I will not let the country bow down,” he said.
China, a close ally of Pakistan, urged both sides to show restraint.
“We hope that both India and Pakistan can … take actions that will help stabilize the situation in the region and help to improve mutual relations, instead of the other way around,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters.
Insurgents in Indian-controlled Kashmir have been demanding either outright independence or union with Pakistan. India routinely accuses Pakistan of arming and training militants who cross the mountainous Himalayan region. In the past year, its increasingly bloody crackdown has escalated tensions in the troubled region.
Kashmir — divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety — has been the cause of two wars between the uneasy neighbors. They fought a third war in 1979 over East Pakistan, which gained its independence with the help of India and became Bangladesh.
Pakistan has outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad and seized its properties in south Punjab’s Bawahalpur area, including religious schools and mosques. India has demanded that Jaish-e-Mohammad’s leader, Azhar Masood, be listed as a terrorist by the United Nations, but has been stymied by China.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned Tuesday’s incursion, saying New Delhi had “endangered” peace in the region for political gains.
“We are a responsible nation and our forces are capable to defend each every inch of our motherland,” he told a local television channel.
Lt. Col. Devender Anand, an Indian army spokesman, said Pakistani soldiers attacked Indian positions overnight along the boundary in Kashmir, the so-called Line of Control. He called the attack an “unprovoked” violation of the 2003 cease-fire. He said there were no casualties and refused to discuss India’s incursion into Pakistan.
Residents of Chikhoti, on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control, said they heard the roar of Indian jets overhead. They said they had been expecting an Indian response after the attack this month.
“We built bunkers near our home years ago and we will use them if there is any attack from India in our area,” said Mohammad Shafiq, 55.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan this month authorized the army to “respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure” by India, after New Delhi vowed a “jaw-breaking response” to the suicide bombing.
Pakistan said it was “not involved in any way, means or form” in the attack, which it said was “conceived, planned and executed indigenously.” Pakistan vowed to help investigate and to take action against anyone found to be using Pakistani soil for attacks on India. It also offered to hold a “dialogue” with India on all issues, including terrorism.