Pakistan warns India of ‘surprise’ retaliation after air strikes

New Delhi’s incursion, the first in decades, raised the risk of conflict between the neighbours

Pakistani reporters and troops visit the site of an Indian airstrike in Jaba, near Balakot, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Pakistan said 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. (AP Photo/Aqeel Ahmed)
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Pakistan on Tuesday promised a “befitting” and “surprise” response to pre-dawn air strikes carried out by Indian jets inside its territory for the first time in decades, a warning that raised the prospect of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The Islamabad government said it would retaliate at “at a time and place of its choosing” after the first air strikes by its neighbour since their 1971 war.

The incursion in the early hours of Tuesday sent tensions between the nuclear-armed arch rivals spiralling, but the two hotly contested what had happened.

India claimed it had killed a large number of militants when 10 mirage 2000 jets struck a militant camp near Balakot where they were allegedly planning an imminent attack.

Pakistan called that claim “self-serving, reckless and fictitious” and said its own jets had successfully intercepted the raiders and they had dropped their payload in uninhabited forest as they fled.

The Indian strike came after a deadly attack on Indian police earlier this month that has been blamed on Pakistan-based militants put intense pressure on the Indian leader, Narendra Modi, to take revenge.

Domestic outrage at the killing of at least 40 paramilitary officers in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14 has come as he faces a reelection battle this spring.

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale said New Delhi had received intelligence that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group blamed for the Kashmir attack was plotting another assault.

"In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary ... In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot.”

The strike just inside the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had killed a “very large number” of the group's militants, trainers and commanders, he said.

But Pakistan rejected India's claim, saying the jets had been intercepted and “forced to scuttle back while randomly releasing their ordinance which landed in an uninhabited area”.

Pakistan's military released pictures of what it said was the scene, showing hilly and wooded terrain with what appeared to be a crater.

Villagers near Balakot said they had heard jets and around four loud blasts at about 3.30am in the morning local time, but reported only one person wounded by shrapnel.

"We saw trees fallen down and one house damaged and four craters where the bombs had fallen," said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site told Reuters.

Allies of the two nations, including Saudi Arabia, the US, Britain and China have tried to lower the diplomatic temperature and get the countries to talk.

One Western diplomatic source said attempts were being made to ensure that any more responses were measured and did not escalate a crisis between nuclear-armed adversaries.

As both sides sought to drum up diplomatic support, opposition parties called for a boycott of an next month's Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conclave because India had been invited as a special guest.

Kashmir has been at the heart of tensions between the neighbours since Partition in 1947 and has been the trigger for two of their three wars. The beautiful Himalayan region is claimed by both sides and divided between them by a heavily militarised line of control.

Another militant attack on Indian forces in 2016 led to New Delhi saying it had launched cross border “surgical strikes” to destroy terrorist camps. At the time, Pakistan denied the strikes happened.

Shelling across the line of control has occurred frequently over the past few years but airspace incidents are extremely rare.