India launches airstrikes inside Pakistan after deadly Kashmir attack

Pakistan says 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.

The overnight raid was the latest escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals since a militant attack in the disputed Kashmir region earlier this month killed more than 40 Indian soldiers. Pakistan has denied involvement, but has vowed to respond to any Indian military operation against it.

The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility. The bomber, who made a video before the attack, was a resident of Indian Kashmir.

Pakistan's military spokesperson, Maj.-Gen. Asif Ghafoor, said the Indian "aircrafts" crossed into the Muzafarabad sector of Kashmir, which is split between the two countries but claimed by each in its entirety. He said Pakistan scrambled fighters and the Indian jets "released payload in haste" near Balakot, on the edge of Pakistani-ruled Kashmir.

Conflicting claims on casualties

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters in New Delhi that Indian fighter aircraft targeted Jaish-e-Mohammed camps in the pre-emptive strike after intelligence indicated another attack was being planned.

"Acting on intelligence, India early today stuck the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot," he said. "In this operation a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and Jehadis being trained were eliminated."

But Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called those statements a "self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim," and said they were made "for domestic consumption" in the run-up to elections. 

Balakot police Chief Saghir Hussain Shah told The Associated Press he had sent teams to the area where the Indian bombs reportedly hit, which he described as a mostly deserted wooded area.

"There are no casualties, there are no damages on the ground because of the dropping of the bombs," he said.There was no immediate explanation for the differing accounts, but India and Pakistan routinely contradict the other.

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale says aircraft targeted Jaish-e-Mohammed camps in a pre-emptive strike. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The Feb. 14 attack in Indian-ruled Kashmir was the worst on Indian forces since the start of the 1989 insurgency in Kashmir and came as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the middle of a re-election campaign.

Addressing a rally of former soldiers in Rajasthan state on Tuesday, just hours after the airstrike, Modi said India was in "safe hands."

"I vow that I will not let the country bow down."

China, a close ally of Pakistan, urged both sides to show restraint.

"We hope that both India and Pakistan can … take actions that will help stabilize the situation in the region and help to improve mutual relations, instead of the other way around," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told reporters.

Insurgents have been demanding either outright independence or union with Pakistan. India routinely accuses Pakistan of arming and training militants who cross the mountainous Himalayan region. In the last year an increasingly bloody crackdown on insurgents in Indian-ruled Kashmir has escalated tensions in the troubled region.

Long-running conflict

Kashmir has been the cause of two previous wars between the uneasy neighbours. They fought a third war in 1971 over East Pakistan, which gained its independence with the help of India and became Bangladesh.

Pakistan has outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed and seized its properties in south Punjab's Bawahalpur area, including religious schools and mosques. India has demanded that Jaish-e-Mohammad leader, Azhar Masood, be listed as a terrorist by the United Nations, but has been stymied by China.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned Tuesday's incursion, saying New Delhi had "endangered" peace in the region for political gains.

"We are a responsible nation and our forces are capable to defend each every inch of our motherland," he told a local television channel.

Lt.-Col. Devender Anand, an Indian army spokesperson, said Pakistani soldiers attacked Indian positions along the disputed Kashmir border region overnight. He called the attack an "unprovoked" violation of the 2003 ceasefire. He said there were no casualties and refused to discuss the Indian incursion into Pakistan.

Residents of Chikhoti, on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control, said they heard the roar of Indian jets as they crossed overhead. They said they had been expecting an Indian response after the attack earlier this month.

"We built bunkers near our home years ago and we will use them if there is any attack from India in our area," said Mohammad Shafiq, 55.

Earlier this month, Khan authorized Pakistan's armed forces to "respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure" by India, after New Delhi vowed a "jaw-breaking response" to the suicide bombing.

Pakistan said it was "not involved in any way, means or form" in the attack, which it said was "conceived, planned and executed indigenously." Pakistan vowed to help investigate the attack and to take action against anyone found to be using Pakistani soil for attacks on India. It also offered to hold a "dialogue" with India on all issues, including terrorism.

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