Pakistan says it has shot down two Indian military jets, which violated its airspace, and captured two pilots amid escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors over the recent developments in disputed Kashmir.
The Pakistani military’s spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said in a Twitter message that two Indian Air Force planes had been targeted in the airspace over the Islamabad-administered side of Kashmir.
Ghafoor said one of the aircraft fell on India’s side of Kashmir, while the second came down in Pakistani-held territory with two pilots captured, he added.
One of the captured pilots was in custody and the other was in hospital, he said.
The Pakistan government’s official Twitter account released a video of what it said was one of the Indian pilots.
Reuters cited an Indian official as saying that New Delhi’s jets also intercepted at least three Pakistani warplanes and forced them back after they crossed into Indian territory on Wednesday.
The Pakistani jets intruded over the Bimber Gali- Noushera sector at the Line of Control, said the unnamed official.
Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Rajeesh Kumar confirmed that India had lost a warplane in Wednesday’s battles. He also claimed that India had shot down a Pakistani fighter jet.
“The Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side,” Kumar noted.
But Ghafoor denied those reports, and explained that accounts an F-16 had been lost were incorrect because none were used in the operation.
The reported airspace intrusion prompted India to close at least four airports in the northern part of the country.
Citing an Indian government official, Reuters said the airports are at Pathankot, Leh, Srinagar and Jammu.
The main airport in Srinagar had been shut down for three hours, according to police.
Pakistani airspace was also officially closed for commercial flights, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced.
In a separate incident, police officials in Indian-controlled Kashmir said that two Indian pilots and a civilian had died after an Indian aircraft crashed in Kashmir. The craft was initially reported by officials to be a plane, but a partial tail number from the craft seen by a Reuters witness showed it to be an Mi17 military helicopter.
The cause of the crash was unknown.
Overnight, the two sides traded heavy fire along their border in the Kashmir region. Islamabad pledged to surprise India with its retaliatory strikes after India pounded a purported militant training camp on Pakistan soil on Tuesday morning.
Pakistan began shelling the India-controlled side of Kashmir from across the border – known as the Line of Control (LoC) – on Tuesday evening, a spokesman for the Indian defense forces said on Wednesday.
“The Indian Army retaliated for effect and our focused fire resulted in severe destruction to five posts and a number of casualties,” said the spokesman.
He said that five Indian troops suffered minor wounds in the shelling that ended on Wednesday morning.
“So far there are no (civilian) casualties but there is panic among people,” said Rahul Yadav, the deputy commissioner of the Poonch district. “We have an evacuation plan in place and if need arises we will evacuate people to safer areas.”
On the other side of the border, Pakistan’s local officials said at least four people had been killed and seven others wounded in the exchange of fire.
They did not clarify if the casualties were civilian or military.
Indian police also said they had killed two militants in a gunbattle on Wednesday
Imran Khan urges talks
Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered talks with India and said better sense should prevail in relations between the two countries.
“Let us open the corridor of negotiations and settle all outstanding issues,” Imran Khan said in an address to the nation on Wednesday.
“We offered India every possible support into the investigation into the Pulwama attack. That’s not in Pakistan’s interest to promote terrorism. It is not in the interest of Pakistan that its soil should be used for exporting terror. Similarly, Pakistani soil cannot be subjected to terror,” Imran Khan said.
The premier further said, “No sovereign country can allow another country to become judge, jury and executioners. Therefore, I prompted India in case of aggression, we would have no option but to respond.”
“All wars in world history have been miscalculated. Those who started the wars did not know where it will end. So, I want to ask India, with the weapons you and we have, can we afford miscalculation?”
‘India not seeking further escalation’
Earlier, India said that it sought no “further escalation of the situation,” arguing that it had only conducted “pre-emptive” airstrikes against what it called a militant camp on in the Pakistani town of Balakot near Kashmir.
Indian military sources said some 300 militants were killed in the operation, a claim rejected by Islamabad as outright “lying.”
New Delhi said the targeted camp belonged to the so-called Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group, which had claimed responsibility for an attack on an Indian security convoy in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir, on February 14. That attack killed more than 40 Indian troops.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said on Wednesday that the government in New Delhi carried out the air raids “in the light of the continuing refusal of Pakistan to acknowledge and act against terror groups on its territory.”
“India does not wish to see further escalation of this situation,” she said. “India will continue to act with responsibility and restraint.”
The Indian diplomat also said that “based on credible information … Jaish-e-Mohammed was planning other attacks in… (India).”
“The limited objective of that pre-emptive strike was to act decisively against the terrorist infrastructure of Jaish-e-Mohammed in order to pre-empt another terror attack in India,” Swaraj added.
Swaraj also stressed that “no military installations were targeted” in the raids, and that the target was selected to avoid civilian casualties.
Soon after the bomb attack on Indian security convoy in Pulwama, New Delhi said it “was being controlled from across” the frontier by Pakistan’s main spy agency, and JeM commanders.
Prime Minster Narendra Modi also warned that those behind the bombing “have to pay a heavy price.”
‘Nobody killed, no damage’
Pakistan, which keeps denying the allegations of having a hand in the mid-February bomb attack, disputed India’s account and dismissed its claim of heavy militant casualties as “self-serving, reckless and fictitious.”
“There is not even a single brick in the debris,” said Pakistani military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor on Wednesday.
“If there was any infrastructure there, then there would be some debris. They say [hundreds of] people were killed – I say that if there were even 10 people, there would be some bodies there,” he added.
He invited foreign diplomats and media to visit the scene of the air raids to verify his country’s account.
Some witnesses in the area also gave their own versions of the incident, saying, “The payload was dropped near the forest in Batrasi, it is totally uninhabited.”
This is believed to be the first time India’s Air Force has crossed into Pakistan since 1971.
Soon after the attack on Pakistan soil, Prime Minister Imran Khan convened a meeting of the National Security Committee, which vowed to “respond at the time and place of its choosing” in a statement.
The prime minister also called a special meeting of the National Command Authority – Pakistan’s top nuclear decision-making body – on Wednesday.
‘Pakistan knows how to defend motherland’
In the meantime, President Arif Alvi said that Pakistan had no aggressive intention against any nation, but it knew how to defend the motherland from any kind of misadventure.
Addressing an international conference on “Media and Conflict,” on Tuesday, he said, “We know how to defend ourselves,” without mentioning the Indian strikes.
He accused India of pursuing “an irrational approach” toward Islamabad, saying that whenever any terror incident occurred in India, New Delhi blamed Pakistan.
World urges calm
In the meantime, more governments across the world are joining the chorus of warnings, calling on both India and Pakistan to avoid further escalation.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang reiterated Beijing’s call for both sides to exercise restraint on Wednesday.
She had said a day earlier that “India and Pakistan are both important countries in South Asia.”
“A sound relationship and cooperation between the two serves the interests of both the countries and peace and stability in South Asia,” the Chinese official said, calling on them to “exercise restraint and do more to improve their bilateral relations.”
The European Union has also reacted to the situation, calling for “maximum restraint” from both sides.
France, in turn, urged restraint and said it “recognizes India’s legitimacy to ensure its security against cross-border terrorism.”
France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs asked “Pakistan to put an end to the operations of terrorist groups established on its territory.”
The Australian government also urged Pakistan to take “urgent and meaningful action against terrorist groups in its territory,” and likewise called on both sides to exercise restraint.
“Pakistan must do everything possible to implement its own proscription of Jaish-e-Mohammed,” the government said in a statement.
Iran also called “on the two countries of India and Pakistan to [exercise] restraint and make more efforts to reduce tensions and peacefully settle the existing differences and problems through dialog.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke separately with the foreign ministers of both countries and called on them to avoid “further military activity.”
“I expressed to both Ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” Pompeo said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “I also encouraged both Ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity.”
Taliban warns against prolongation of conflict
The Afghan Taliban militant group also reacted to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, saying, “The continuation of such conflict will affect the Afghanistan peace process.”
“India should not carry any further violence in Pakistan because its continuation will affect regional security also the continuation of such conflict will cost a lot to India,” Taliban Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement on Wednesday.
The group is engaged in a new round of talks with US representatives in Doha, the Qatari capital, to find a solution to the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.