IAF strikes Jaish camp across LoC, about 300 likely killed

Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described the air strike — in which government officials said over 300 terrorists,trainers and commanders may have been killed — as “non-military pre-emptive action”.
Pakistani reporters and troops visit the site of an Indian airstrike in Jaba, near Balakot, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.(AP)
Pakistani reporters and troops visit the site of an Indian airstrike in Jaba, near Balakot, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.(AP)
Updated on Feb 27, 2019 12:06 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySudhi Ranjan Sen, Rajesh Ahuja and Rahul Singh

Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter planes destroyed a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist camp in a pre-dawn strike on Tuesday in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s province after penetrating deep across the Line of Control (LoC) to enter Pakistani airspace for the first time in 48 years.

Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described the air strike — in which government officials said over 300 terrorists,trainers and commanders may have been killed — as “non-military pre-emptive action”.

Gokhale said the strike by Mirage 2000 jets at around 3:30am was ordered on the basis of credible intelligence that the Pakistan-based JeM, which claimed responsibility for the February 14 suicide car bombing that claimed the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir, planned to carry out suicide attacks in various parts of India. He stressed that the attack on the group’s biggest terrorist camp, located in the town of Balakot, was undertaken in self-defence.

“The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. It’s located in deep forest on a hilltop,” Gokhale said.

The camp was headed by Yusuf Azhar alias Ustad Ghauri, the brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar, Gokhale said. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told an all-party meeting in the evening that Indian intelligence had reason to believe Yusuf Azhar was at the facility during the strike, according to officials aware of the discussions. Azhar was one of the militants behind the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in 1999 to free Masood Azhar from Indian custody.

It was unclear if he was killed in the air strike.

Swaraj also told the all-party meeting that Indian jets had penetrated 80 miles (130 km) into the LoC. The meeting was also attended by finance minister Arun Jaitley and home minister Rajnath Singh.

Pakistan said on Tuesday that Indian aircraft “intruded” into its airspace, dropped their payload in haste when its own warplanes scrambled into action, and returned without causing any casualties or damage. It warned that it would respond to the Indian “act of aggression” at a time and place of its choosing.

“I assure you that the nation is in safe hands,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of ex-servicemen in Rajasthan’s Churu in the afternoon, without referring to the air strikes . “I won’t let this country down.”

“My soul says today is the day to reiterate what I had said 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. I pledge to the motherland that I will not let her head down,” said Modi, who briefed the president and the vice president on the operation.

Most nations that reacted to Tuesday’s strikes, including the UK, China and the European Union, asked India and Pakistan to exercise restraint. France said it “recognises India’s legitimacy to ensure its security against cross-border terrorism” and asked Pakistan to put an end to operations of terrorist groups established on its territory.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi welcomed the cross-border action.

In a tweet, he wrote: “I salute the IAF pilots.” West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: “IAF also means India’s Amazing Fighters. Jai Hind.”

“Today’s strong action shows the will and resolve of a New India. Our New India will not spare any acts of terror and their perpetrators and patrons,” Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said.

Though India’s Mirage jets crossed the LoC in 2002 over a border dispute, this is the first time the Indian Air Force crossed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and entered Pakistani airspace to drop a bomb since the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh.

The IAF used Mirage-2000 jets carrying missiles and guided bombs to target the JeM camp spread over seven acres, people with knowledge of the development said. The air force also deployed Sukhoi 30MKIs, which were used as decoys as they flew towards Bhawalpur, the town where JeM is headquartered. These jets were also meant to double up as reinforcements in case the Pakistanis intercepted the Mirages, these people added.

On Tuesday morning, a couple of hours after the attack, a Pakistani unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was shot down near the International Border in Kutch district of Gujarat. Gujarat and Punjab are now on high alert in wake of the air strikes.

According to analysts, the strike confirmed that India would deploy full-spectrum deterrence if it was attacked by any Pakistan-based terror group. One diplomat referred to the September 2016 surgical strikes conducted on terrorist camps across the LoC days after an attack in Uri left 19 Indian soldiers dead . “The Modi government made it clear from Uri 2016 that every terror strike will be met with a retaliation,” the diplomat said, asking not to be named. “The question in the past was should we or should we not. Now it is when, where and how.”

The February 14 suicide car bombing on the Jammu-Srinagar highway left 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers dead. Modi said after the attack that he had given the Indian armed forces a free hand to retaliate at a time and place of their choosing.

The Indian Air Force on Tuesday put on high alert all air defence systems along the international border and the LoC to respond to any possible action by the Pakistan Air Force. National security adviser Ajit Doval, along with Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat and IAF chief Air Chief Marshall BS Dhanoa reviewed the security situation on the borders.

Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) attended by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, home minister Rajnath Singh and finance minister Arun Jaitley. NSA Doval also attended the meeting. Gokhale briefed foreign diplomats on the operation.

“They [Pakistan leadership] say they want India to bleed with a thousand cuts. We say that each time you attack us, be certain we will get back at you, harder and stronger. Salute the brave pilots of the IAF that carried out the strikes,” minister of state for external affairs and former army chief VK Singh said.

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