ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian jets conducted air strikes against a militant camp in Pakistani territory yesterday, India’s foreign secretary said, and a Indian government source said 300 militants had been killed, but Pakistan denied there had been any casualties.
The airstrikes hit a training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the group that claimed credit for a suicide car bomb attack killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on February 14, ratcheting up tensions between the two nuclear armed neighbours.
The action was ordered as India said it had intelligence that Jaish was planning more attacks.
“In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,” Vijay Gokhale, India’s top diplomat, told reporters.
“The existence of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities,” Mr Gokhale said.
Pakistan denies harbouring JeM, a primarily anti-India group that forged ties with al Qaeda and has been on a UN terror list since 2001. In December 2001, Jaish fighters, along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, launched an attack on India’s parliament, which almost resulted in the two countries going to war for a fourth time.
Mr Gokhale said “a very large number” of militants were killed in a strike on a training base in Balakot, a town in a remote valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, but did not provide a precise figure for the casualties.
The commander of the camp was Maulana Yusuf Azhar, a brother-in-law of JeM leader Masood Azhar, Gokhale said.
A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants had been killed in the strikes. But no details were provided.
Pakistan downplayed the severity of airstrike, saying its own warplanes had chased off the Indian aircraft, which had released their “payload” in a forested area, causing no casualties and no serious material damage.
“Indian aircraft intruded from Muzaffarabad sector,” Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said on Twitter early yesterday, referring to an area in the Pakistan-held part of Kashmir.
Mr Ghafoor said “facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force”, the Indian aircraft “released payload in haste, while escaping, which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage”.
Saying that more information would be released, Mr Ghafoor tweeted four pictures of the alleged site where Indian aircraft dropped a payload near Balakot, purportedly showing a bomb crater in a forest area but no serious damage.
Pakistani villagers in the area where the Indian jets struck said they heard four loud bangs in the early hours yesterday but reported only one person was wounded.
“We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said yesterday that “better sense” should prevail, warning India not to challenge Pakistan.
While Mr Gokhale did not comment on the status of the camps, India’s minister of state for agriculture, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, said on Twitter yesterday they had been “completely destroyed”.
Indian television networks reported the airstrikes took place at 3:30 am.