Islamabad says it will retaliate and if it does, a dangerous cycle of violence might start
The world came to know about it when Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesperson of the Pakistan Armed forces tweeted that Indian air force violated the Line of Control. “Indian aircraft 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,” he tweeted early morning on Tuesday. He also posted four photographs where “payload of hastily escaping Indian aircraft fell”. “No infrastructure got hit, no casualties. Technical details and other important information to follow,” he added.
Hours later, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale held a press conference in New Delhi and briefed about the incident. He said that in an intelligence-led operation, “India struck the biggest training camp of JeM [Jaish e Mohammed] 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.”
The attack comes 12 days after a suicide bomber ambushed a bus carrying CRPF personnel, killing at least 40 soldiers in Pulwama. India had said that it would retaliate to the attack that was claimed by Jaish. In 2016, India had carried out cross-border raids after the Jaish attacked a military camp in Uri. The Balakot hit looks more daunting than the post-Uri raids.
Both India and Pakistan agree that Indian jets have violated the LoC. But they have different versions of what happened during the raid. While India says it hit a Jaish camp and killed terrorists and trainers, the Pakistanis say Indian jets were forced to retreat by the Pakistani F16s. There were initially some confusion which Balakot was hit. There is one Bala Kot inside the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which is near the LoC, and then there’s Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Though Indian foreign secretary didn’t specify which Balakot was the target, it’s emerging that India targeted the Balakot in KP, which is some 200 km north of Islamabad. The BBC Urdu interviewed local residents from the region who also confirmed that they heard explosions in the Jaba Top sector. Mohammad Adil, a farmer in Jaba village, told the BBC Urdu that he and his family were woken up at about 03 am by “a huge explosion”. “Then we heard jets flying over. We went to the place in the morning. There was a huge crater and four or five houses were destroyed,” he said.
The Indian side said they did not violate the international border. Twelve Mirage aircraft took off from Gwalior, crossed the LoC and fired laser guided bombs and missiles from the Pakistan-held Kashmir to the Jaish camp deep inside Pakistan.
Foreign Secretary Gokhale’s response was measured. While refusing to give further details on the strike, he called it “a non-military pre-emptive attack”– which means the target was not Pakistan’s military nor its civilians, but terrorists who were planning to attack India. The message India was giving is that it doesn’t want to escalate it further. But the ball is now in Pakistan’s court. Islamabad has said that it will retaliate at the time and place of its choosing. If it does, India will be compelled to response again, particularly after raising the stakes, setting off a dangerous cycle of violence.