Indian warplanes struck what India described as a “terror training camp” in Pakistani territory in the early hours of Tuesday morning, moving the nuclear nations closer to a military confrontation.
India’s jets crossed the Line of Control (LOC) in the contested Kashmir region to strike a target located on the Pakistani side. The attack marked the first LOC violation since 1971.
Indian and Pakistani troops exchanged gunfire across the LOC on Tuesday morning, an incident described by India as an “unprovoked ceasefire violation” by Pakistan.
India described the primary target as a “terror training camp” used by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a February 14 suicide bombing attack on a military convoy that killed 41 Indian soldiers.
“India has struck the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad in Balakote, which was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azar, the brother in law of the chief of the JeM. A large number of JeM terrorists were eliminated,” Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters on Tuesday.
Gokhale said his government acted based on information JeM was planning to stage more terrorist attacks on India. He accused Pakistan of violating its “solemn commitment” to prevent terrorists from operating out of its territory.
Gokhale described the airstrike as a precision operation against a target that was not close to civilians, but the Pakistani armed forces claim the Indian planes fled “hastily” when the Pakistan air force responded and haphazardly dumped their payloads as they escaped.
Villagers living near Balakot, the town nearest the strike location, contradicted India’s account by telling Gulf News no one was killed in the attack and only one person was injured. They said the hill struck by India’s warplanes is the location of a madrasa, or Islamic school, used by Jaish-e-Mohammed loyalists.
One villager said the location was definitely used as a training camp by JeM before the madrasa was constructed, and said the terrorists have not allowed anyone to approach the installation since then. Several of them reported hearing explosions during the attack but said India’s bombs missed their target by about a kilometer, knocking over trees and damaging a house.
Pakistan described the attack as a “grave aggression” and said it would respond “at the time and place of its choosing.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called an emergency meeting of his National Security Committee on Tuesday, telling the Pakistani military and civilian population to be “prepared for all eventualities.”
“The forum strongly rejected Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot and the claim of heavy casualties. Once again Indian government has resorted to a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim,” the NSC said in a statement after the meeting.
The statement accused India of carrying out the attack for “domestic consumption” in an “election environment” and charged India with “putting regional peace and stability at grave risk.”
Pakistan reportedly intends to complain about the Indian attack to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations, and Pakistan’s allies.
Indians celebrated in the streets as news of the airstrike spread and opposition politicians saluted the armed forces for carrying out the attack, prompting pollsters to anticipate a surge of support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indians spoke to Reuters about long-simmering anger against Pakistan for allowing terrorists to operate from its soil.
“We will celebrate tonight. We have lost so many of our villagers to Pakistani firing,” an Indian living along the Line of Control in Kashmir said.
Indian social media surged with approval for the airstrike, while Indian media broadcast patriotic slogans describing the attack as a “proud moment for undefeatable India.”
“I want to assure the people of the country that the nation is in safe hands,” Modi said at a public meeting on Tuesday.
“I vow to the soil of my country that I won’t allow the country to break, won’t allow the country to bow. I promise mother India that I will not let your head bow down. My country is awakening and every citizen will win,” Modi said.
Australia appeared to take India’s side in the conflict on Tuesday by issuing a strongly worded statement calling on Pakistan to “take urgent and meaningful action against terrorist groups in its territory, including Jaish-e-Mohammed.”
“Pakistan must do everything possible to implement its own proscription of Jaish-e-Mohammed. It can no longer allow extremist groups the legal and physical space to operate from its territory,” said Australian Foreign minister Marise Payne.