India says its fighter jets crossed a disputed border as they headed into Pakistan before dawn Tuesday, conducting airstrikes on a militant training camp and killing "a very large number of terrorists."
Pakistan confirmed by tweet that Indian planes entered its airspace. But the spokesperson for the Pakistan Armed Forces said that the planes were forced to drop their payload in an open field after Pakistan scrambled its own jets and that there were no casualties or damage.
What actually happened in the Pakistani area of Balakot may be known only to local villagers, who told Reuters they heard four loud bangs overnight. They said only one person was wounded by bomb shards.
Still, Pakistan's foreign minister denounced what he called "Indian aggression" and threatened "a befitting response."
Tensions between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan have seldom been higher — even before Tuesday's incursion. After a suicide car bomb earlier this month in disputed Kashmir, the two countries recalled their envoys from each other's capitals and vowed to use military firepower if the other attacked first.
Indian officials were quick to herald the bravery of their air force pilots, even before full details of Tuesday's airstrikes were known.
"Each time you attack us, be certain we will get back at you, harder and stronger," India's minister of state for external affairs, Vijay Kumar Singh, tweeted early Tuesday, amid reports of the strike but before officials had confirmed it.
The head of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, tweeted that the attack demonstrates that India is "safe and secure under the strong & decisive leadership" of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi is running for re-election in polls expected this spring. At a rally in Rajasthan later Tuesday, Modi told the crowd that he salutes Indian soldiers and promised to "take India to new heights."
"I promise all citizens that the country is in safe hands," he said in reference to the military operation hours earlier.
The latest row began on Feb. 14, when a suicide car bombing killed some 40 Indian troops in a convoy on the outskirts of Srinagar, one of the largest cites in Indian-controlled Kashmir. It was the deadliest such attack in three decades in Kashmir, a Himalayan territory that's split between Indian and Pakistani zones.
A Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed), a U.S.-designated terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The group is banned in both countries, but India accuses Pakistan of tacitly supporting the group. Islamabad denies that. The bomber himself was a local Kashmiri man.
The Feb. 14 attack prompted a diplomatic dispute between India and Pakistan, and fears of a backlash against the Kashmiri people themselves. In recent weeks, there have been reports of evictions and harassment of Kashmiris, who are mostly Muslim, across Hindu-majority India. Several of the funeral processions for the Indian soldiers and police killed in that attack morphed into nationalist rallies, with mourners chanting for revenge against Pakistan.
India said Tuesday's airstrike targeted a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp run by a brother-in-law of the group's chief. "A very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis... were eliminated," the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.
But the exact location of the alleged camp was still unclear. Both countries said the airstrikes happened in an area called Balakot. But there are two such villages: One is in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Another is deeper inside Pakistan, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Only in the latter case, would Indian jets have crossed a recognized international border. Pakistan contends that the Indian jets crossed the Line of Control, the de facto border between Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir. At a news conference in New Delhi, Indian officials refused to answer questions.
India's foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, told reporters that "credible intelligence" suggested Jaish-e-Mohammed "was attempting another suicide attack."
"In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary," Gokhale said.
He accused Pakistan of taking "no concrete actions to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil" and added that such a massive training camp "could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistan authorities."
Tuesday's events bear an uncanny resemblance to what happened in 2016, when India announced that it had conducted surgical strikes against militant launch pads in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. It claimed the strike killed dozens of militants. Pakistan confirmed that an operation had occurred but disputed that it was successful and said the death toll was much lower.
There's even a Bollywood film about the 2016 strikes, Uri, currently showing in Indian theaters.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
India says its fighter jets crossed into Pakistan early today. The Indian jets bombed a militant training camp. The Indian government says, quote, "a very large number of terrorists were killed." Pakistan says the Indian jets struck nothing. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in the Indian capital, New Delhi, to help us sort this out. Hi there, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: I guess we should remember the old saying, the truth is the first casualty of war. But we'll try to figure out what we can. Why does India say that it sent planes across the border?
FRAYER: India says it was acting on intelligence of imminent suicide attacks being planned by militants on the Pakistani side. It says its fighter jets bombed one of the biggest training camps of Jaish-e-Muhammad. That is a group based in Pakistan which the U.S. designates as a terror group and which claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb that killed Indian troops earlier this month. So India says this was retaliation, and that it killed a very large number of fighters, trainees and leaders of that group.
INSKEEP: That's the Indian version. What's the Pakistani version?
FRAYER: To hear Pakistan describe it, it sounds like a totally different event, a much more minor event. Pakistan says Indian jets crossed into Pakistani airspace, Pakistani jets were scrambled in response and that Indian jets dropped their payload in an open field. No casualties, no injuries.
INSKEEP: OK. So there's a huge difference about what happened, but no dispute that India sent planes across the border. Is it normal that India would conduct what sounds like an act of war against another country?
FRAYER: These are archrival neighbors. They've fought a number of wars against one another since independence from Britain in 1947. So there have been scuffles every now and again but, no, it's not normal.
INSKEEP: OK. And then there's the question of why the two sides would differ so greatly about what happened beyond simple the different - differ so greatly over what happened. What would the motive be for India to play up this attack while Pakistan would play it down?
FRAYER: Look. Indians are really upset over this suicide car bomb earlier this month. It killed 40 Indian troops. That's the deadliest attack in three decades in Kashmir. That's where it took place. It's a territory split between India and Pakistan. There have been funerals for these troops across India, and they've morphed into these nationalist rallies. People are calling for revenge against Pakistan. So the government, the Indian government was under pressure to retaliate. People have been calling for it in the streets here.
INSKEEP: So that would be why India would say, we've now taken a big, big step.
FRAYER: That's right. And on the Pakistani side, look, nobody wants an all-out war here. Pakistan has always said it would retaliate if India attacks its soil. Today Pakistan's foreign minister promised a befitting response. But for Pakistan, a befitting response to a raid that killed many people, or an air incursion that lasted a few minutes and killed no one?
INSKEEP: This is beginning to sound like something of a charade, granting that some people may or may not have been killed.
FRAYER: Absolutely. And no matter what happened, Indian politicians are applauding the bravery of their pilots. This is a very nationalist moment in India. We have elections coming here. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at a rally today. He's running for re-election, a second term. He told the crowd the country is in safe hands and that he will not let the country bow down.
INSKEEP: Lauren, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate them.
FRAYER: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer. She's reporting from New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.