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IAF hits JeM training camps in Pakistan; Islamabad downplays attack but vows to 'act and react'

Less than two weeks after the Pulwama terror attack, India on Tuesday carried out a "non-military, preemptive" air strike across the Line of Control (LoC), specifically targeting the training camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in Pakistan. While New Delhi claimed a " very large number of JeM terrorists" were killed, Islamabad strongly rejected that terror camps were targeted or that there were heavy casualties.

The news of the pre-dawn strike broke early on Tuesday, when Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor claimed on Twitter that their forces turned back Indian aircraft which intruded from Muzaffarabad sector.

As confusion and speculation began, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale addressed the media. He said the "intelligence-led operation" on the Pakistan-based terror group's biggest training camp in Balakot became "absolutely necessary" as JeM was planning more suicide attacks in India, after the 14 February attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama. "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," he said, stressing that care was taken to avoid civilian casualties. Gokhale said the camp was located in Balakot but did not elaborate further.

This triggered more confusion about the location of the strike. Sources told PTI that the reference was to the town in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 80 kilometres from the Line of Control and near Abbotabad where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in hiding by US forces.

Spelled as Balakote, Balakot and Bala Kot in various reports, initial reports also claimed the site was in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Based on what Ghafoor said, many journalists pointed out that the "other" Bala Kote, in Poonch, is nowhere near Muzaffarabad. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said it was "pointless" speculating about what India might have hit and what fallout the airstrike will have without a confirmation on the location.

Reports later said IAF jets struck JeM hotbeds in Balakot between 3.45 am and 3.53 am, Muzafarrabad between 3.48 am and 3.55 am, and Chakoti between 3.58 am and 4.04 am.

Pakistan rejects India's claim

Pakistan "strongly rejected" India's claim of targeting the terrorist camps and causing heavy casualties even as it vowed to respond "at the time and place of its choosing" and raise the issue at the United Nations and other international forums.

At a hurriedly-called special meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) — Pakistan's top security body — Prime Minister Imran Khan asked the armed forces and the people of his country to remain prepared for "all eventualities."

"The forum (NSC) 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," said a statement issued after the NSC meeting in Islamabad.

Pakistan's top civil and military brass "concluded that India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing," it added. It also invited the world media to see the facts on ground and proposed a visit to the site.

 IAF hits JeM training camps in Pakistan; Islamabad downplays attack but vows to act and react

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at an all-party meeting on Tuesday, and Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at a briefing. PTI

Citing sources, Geo TV reported that Pakistan will raise the issue of India's "violation" of the Line of Control (LoC) at the United Nations and other international forums. "It was decided (at the meeting) that the matter of Indian LoC violation be immediately raised at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the United Nations and with friendly countries," sources told the Pakistani channel.

The NSC statement claimed India's "action has been done for domestic consumption being in election environment, putting regional peace and stability at grave risk."

To "take the nation on board", the Pakistan government decided to requisition a joint session of parliament on Wednesday at 11 am. Imran also summoned a special meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA) on Wednesday.

Later addressing a joint press conference with the ministers of defence and finance, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi asserted that Pakistan will "respond to the Indian aggression."

He announced that a three-member committee, including him, finance minister and defence minister, has been formed to approach parliament to take the people and other parties into confidence on the evolving situation.

Responding to questions, Qureshi claimed that "multi-dimensional intrusion" was attempted by the Indian fighter jets early Tuesday. "But the intervention by Pakistani jets forced them to return back within minutes."

He dismissed the notion that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets were late in responding to the Indian attack, saying PAF jets were "ready" and "air-borne." Flanked by Defence Minister Pervaiz Khattack and Finance Minister Asad Umar, the foreign minister dismissed Indian claim of destroying terror camps of banned JeM in Balakot. "There was no presence of any such camp(s)," he asserted.

Qureshi also warned India not to underestimate Pakistan. "Do not underestimate us. We have our own sense of timing and we will act and react. Pakistan will do what Pakistan should do," he said and added "we will not disappoint the people of Pakistan," he said.

Later, Pakistan Army confirmed that Indian fighter jets dropped "four bombs" during an operation on Tuesday, but downplayed its significance. Its spokesperson Asif Ghafoor also said that Pakistan will "surprise" India with its response that will be in all domains including "diplomatic, political and military."

"Prime Minister Imran Khan told the army and the people that get ready for any eventuality. Now it is time for India to wait for our response. We have decided. Wait for it," Ghafoor said.

Won't let India be destroyed, says Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed two events following the air strike: one in Rajasthan's Churu and the other in Delhi's ISKCON temple. While heavily praising the Indian security forces, he made no direct reference to the air strikes in either of the speeches.

"Today is a day to pay homage to India's bravehearts. Today, I want to assure the people of the country that the country is in safe hands," he said at a public rally in Churu.

Recalling his address at the Vijay Shankhnad Yuva Sangam in 2014, the prime minister said today was the day to reiterate the sentiments. "My soul says today is the day to reiterate what I had expressed in 2014. I swear by my land I won't let my country be destroyed. I will not let the country stop. I will not let the country bow down. I pledge to the motherland that I will not let her head down," he said. “Nothing is above the nation. Those who serve the nation, everyone who is engaged in nation building, pradhan sevak (prime servant) once again greets them."

His cryptic remarks continued at an event to unveil a giant Bhagavad Gita in ISKCON temple in Delhi. "Manavta ke dushmano se dharti ko bachane ke liye prabhu ki shakti hamare saath hamesha rahti hai. Yahi sandesh hum poori pramankta ke saath dusht atmaon, asuron ko dene ka prayas kar rahe hain (Divine power is always with us to take on the enemies of humanity. This is the message we are striving to give to evil spirits and demons)," the prime minister said.

Politicians, military experts welcome airstrikes

News of the strike was welcomed by military experts and leaders from across the political spectrum who had been advocating retribution after the Pulwama attack. While BJP president Amit Shah congratulated the "bravery and valour" of the armed forces, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said he saluted the pilots of the IAF.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said the strikes are a "totally new ball game" as it was for the first time that air power was used during peace time to hit terror targets in Pakistan.

There were celebrations in several parts of the country. After External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj chaired an all-party meeting in New Delhi, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said, "We have appreciated the efforts by the forces, they always have our support to end terrorism. Another good thing is that it was a clean operation, which specifically targeted terrorists and terror camps."

Swaraj told ANI, "I am happy that all parties in one voice praised the security forces and supported the Govt's anti-terror operations." AAP supremo and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was to launch an indefinite hunger strike from 1 March for his demand of full statehood for Delhi, said that his will postpone his plan in view of the attack. "We all stand as one nation today," he wrote on Twitter.

In a statement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) congratulated the Government of India and the Indian Air Force for "exactly translating the feelings and anger of millions of Indians" following the Pulwama attack. "These air strikes were carried out without causing any harm and damage to the Pakistani Army and civilians as well, which is in tune with the Bharatiya culture," it said.

About the operation

A group of Mirage 2000 jets was used to drop bombs in the operation, which included various other aircraft. Sources told PTI India received intelligence that the JeM had shifted many in-training terrorists and hardcore operatives, along with their trainers, to the camp, about 20 kilometres from Balakot town, which has facilities for 500 to 700 people and even a swimming pool.

In a synchronised operation, fighter and other aircraft took off from several air bases in Western and Central commands at about the same time, leaving Pakistani defence officials confused about where they were heading, they said. A small group of aircraft broke away from the swarm and headed to Balakot where "the sleeping terrorists were sitting ducks for the Indian bombing", said a source.

The entire operation, it is learnt, was over in 20 minutes, starting at 3.45 am and ending at 4.05 am. At least 325 terrorists and 25 to 27 trainers were at the camp, sources told PTI. Gokhale said the facility at Balakot, located in a thick forest on a hilltop far from civilian presence, was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar, alias Ustad Ghouri, the brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar. His statement did not say if Yousuf Azhar was among those killed.

Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab were put on high alert following the strike. NDTV reported that Ambala air base and Mumbai's naval base were also put on high alert. Pakistan retaliated later on Tuesday with multiple ceasefire violations across the LoC, including in Nowshera and Akhnoor sectors, Rajouri and Poonch districts in Jammu and Kashmir.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2019 21:30:31 IST