Tensions have been elevated since Pakistan-supported militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in a suicide bombing on Feb. 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Feb. 26 when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant base inside Pakistan.
Indian officials said the raid near the town of Balakot in northeast Pakistan destroyed a training camp of Jaish-e Mohammad, the militant group behind the deadly suicide attack on Feb. 14. India said “a very large number of JeM terrorists” had been killed.
The villagers, however, said only one person was wounded and they knew of no fatalities. From what villagers could see, the air strike missed its target.
India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said the strike killed “a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis who were being trained for Fidayeen action were eliminated.” Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants on suicide missions.
Another senior government official told reporters that about 300 militants had been killed.
Pakistan disputed India’s death toll estimates, saying the operation was a failure that saw Indian jets bomb a hillside without hurting anyone.
On the wooded slopes above Jaba village near Balakot, residents pointed to four bomb craters and some splintered pine trees. But there were little other visible effects of the explosions that blasted them awake around 3 a.m.
“It shook everything,” said Abdur Rasheed, a van driver who lives in the area. He said there weren’t any human casualties: “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.”
Satellite images reviewed by Reuters show that the religious school appears to be still standing days after India said it had flattened the Islamist militant group’s training camp in the area.
The images produced by Planet Labs Inc., a San Francisco-based private satellite operator, show the facility and its surroundings on March 4, six days after the air strike.
They add to questions about claims made by the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the raids had destroyed a JeM camp near Jaba village and the town of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Feb. 26.
People in the area said Jaish-e Mohammad did have a presence, running not an active training camp but a madrassa, or religious school, less than a kilometre from where the bombs fell.
“It is Taleem ul Quran madrassa. The kids from the village study there. There is no training,” said Nooran Shah, another villager.
A sign which had been up earlier in the week identifying the madrassa’s affiliation to Jaish-e Mohammad had been removed by Thursday and soldiers prevented reporters from going into the compound.
But it was possible to see the structure from the back. It appeared intact, like the trees surrounding it, with no sign of any damage like that seen near the bomb craters.
Western diplomats in Islamabad also said they did not believe the Indian air force hit a militant camp.
“There was no militant training camp there. It hasn’t been there for a few years – they moved it. It’s common knowledge amongst our intelligence,” said one of them.
India’s military used 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets, an airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft, a mid-air refueller and drones for surveillance in the attack, defence sources said. The Mirages were armed with Israeli developed air to surface Crystal Maze missiles and SPICE 2000 smart bombs, they said.
The AWAC system is used to gather information from the airspace it surveys and facilitate communication between friendly aircraft. In some cases, it can use countermeasures that confuse enemy radar systems.
AWAC flight path
Indian airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft on the morning of the air strike.
Indian air force veterans said the mission would have been planned meticulously to take advantage of the terrain and radar coverage patterns.
“For such an operation, decoy and surveillance missions are conducted to figure out when the radars are on and off. No equipment works around the clock, 24/7,” a former air force pilot said.
The jets may have flown low, hugging the terrain as much as possible to avoid being spotted by radar, which is less effective in mountainous regions.
“In general terms, for a radar located in the valley to look up, it will have severe restriction of view because of the mountains, however optimally you place them,” said a former Indian air force marshal.
The incident is the first Indian air strike on Pakistani territory since 1971. The strikes by Pakistan and India marked the first time that two nuclear-armed powers have clashed using airpower.
International travel disrupted
Pakistan closed its airspace following the strikes, with commercial flights in the country cancelled.
International airlines that normally transit between Indian and Pakistani airspace have been forced to reroute, including flights by Singapore Airlines, Finnair, British Airways, Aeroflot, and Air India, according to online portal flightradar24.com, which tracks the movement of planes globally.
Some flights were mid-air as events were unfolding, forcing them to turn back, circle over India, or divert to new destinations.
The truth behind the success of the Indian attack on Jaish-e Mohammad may become an issue in the Indian election. If the Pakistani version of events is correct and there were no or few casualties, then there will be major questions about whether the mission was a failure and whether the Modi government has deliberately misled the public. If indeed many militants were killed, it should help to garner support for Modi.
Note: The article is taken from Reuters website and can be read here.