NEW, DELHI/ISLAMABAD – India said its fighter jets destroyed a major terrorist camp in Pakistan in an incident described by Islamabad to be a “grave aggression,” and reported to have been the worst escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals since 2001.
More than 300 people were killed in the airstrikes at the camp belonging to terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed that has trained suicide bombers, according to an Indian official speaking on condition of anonymity. Pakistan denies the attack did any damage or caused casualties.
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in New Delhi today that India carried out strikes in Pakistan following an attack in Kashmir earlier this month, and in response to intelligence that indicated Jaish-e-Mohammed was planning more attacks.
“In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,” Gokhale said. “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.”
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said at a televised news conference in Islamabad that India had violated the Line of Control. “India has committed aggression against Pakistan today — I will call it a grave aggression,” Qureshi said. “Pakistan reserves the right to respond reasonably,” he said, adding that Prime Minister Imran Khan had called a security briefing.
Earlier in the day the Indian rupee weakened offshore, but later erased most losses to trade 0.1 percent lower at 71.05 against the dollar. Pakistan stocks dropped 1.5 percent in the first 10 minutes of trading, with the benchmark KSE-100 Index near the lowest level in almost six weeks. India’s S&P BSE Sensex was down 0.6 percent at 12:09 p.m. in Mumbai, after plunging as much as 1.4 percent.
“The last time the Indian Air Force crossed the Line of Control intentionally and publicly to conduct airstrikes was 1971,” wrote Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT in an email, referring to the last Indo-Pakistan war.
Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the Pakistan Armed Forces, said the Pakistan Air Force responded by scrambling its own jets, adding in a tweet there were “No casualties or damage.”
Relations between the historic arch-rivals have been extremely tense since a suicide car bombing, claimed by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, killed 40 members of India’s security forces in Kashmir on Feb. 14. Jaish-e-Mohammed is a United Nations designated terrorist group.
The reported strikes are the worst escalation since 2001, when Pakistan and India moved ballistic missiles and troops to their border following an attack on parliament in New Delhi that was also blamed on Jaish-e-Mohammad. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition and independence in 1947.
“This is the first time that India has crossed the Line of Control and, from the looks of it, the international border,” said G. Parthasarathy, the former Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan. “In 2001, we had deployed the army on our borders but there was no military action.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in the coming months, is under enormous pressure after blaming Pakistan for the worst attack on security forces in Kashmir in several decades, and markets reacted after Modi pledged a “befitting reply.”
Islamabad has denied any role in the Feb. 14 attack. On Feb. 19, Khan vowed in a televised speech to retaliate against India if New Delhi launched any sort of military response. In the past few days, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited troops along the Line of Control to review their preparedness, according to the military media wing Inter-Services Public Relations.
“My gut tells me there will be some form of escalation,” said Kamran Bokhari, director of Strategy and Programs at Center for Global Policy with the University of Ottawa, by phone. “Pakistan will have to strike back. I am not saying this will lead to an all out war but I don’t see that it’s over.”
The Indian Army said earlier, on Feb. 19, that it had killed a Jaish-e-Mohammed leader in Kashmir who was a Pakistani national and had links to that country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — the main spy agency for the government in Islamabad.
Modi had previously said the country’s defense forces have been given the freedom to respond.
Both India and the U.S. see Pakistan as providing safe haven for terrorist groups and point to the fact that the leadership of groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008, still live freely in Pakistan.