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India launches airstrike on Pakistan, escalating tension between the nuclear rivals

India launches airstrike on Pakistan, escalating tension between the nuclear rivals
Residents in Ahmedabad, India, demonstrate in support of the military on Feb. 26, 2019, after an airstrike on what India said was a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. (Sam Panthaky / AFP/Getty Images)

India launched an airstrike on Pakistan on Tuesday in retaliation for a suicide bombing against its troops this month, heightening tensions between the two nuclear-armed states.

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said the attack was directed at a training camp for Jaish-e-Muhammad, a militant group that India says carried out a Feb. 14 suicide bombing that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in the Kashmir region.

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The strike marks the first publicly acknowledged incursion by Indian warplanes over Pakistan since 1971, when the two countries were at war.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan responded by directing the country’s military and people to “remain prepared for all eventualities.”

Gokhale said intelligence reports had determined the camp, about 120 miles north of Islamabad in Balakot, was training militants for another suicide attack.

“In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,” said Gokhale, who added that “a very large number” of militants had been killed in the strike.

Pakistan offered a different version of Tuesday’s attack. Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the country’s armed forces, said in a series of tweets that the Indian jets were turned away by the Pakistan Air Force after flying three to four miles into Pakistan.

He said the Indian planes dropped their payloads near Balakot, causing no damage to infrastructure or casualties. He also posted pictures of toppled trees, craters and what appear to be bomb fragments.

Residents in the area said they heard aircraft hovering and five explosions before dawn.

“I heard the loud noise of aircraft followed by loud explosions in the surrounding area by the town,” said Manzoor Hussain Shah, a resident of Balakot, who believes the ordnance landed in a nearby conifer forest.

Local police said they were prevented by the army from accessing the area where the bombs landed. Other witnesses said the bombs landed in Jaba, a sparsely populated town near Balakot.

Pakistan’s prime minister held an emergency meeting with national security advisors and military and foreign affairs leaders after the raid.

Khan and his advisors said India’s incursion was aimed at burnishing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity in the run-up to elections in the spring. They said they would eventually allow journalists to visit the bombing site.

After the meeting, the Pakistani government said through its Twitter account that India “had committed an uncalled aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing.”

Tensions have been escalating since a vehicle laden with explosives slammed into a convoy of Indian security forces in Kashmir in the deadliest attack in the region in decades. Pakistan and India have scrapped over the Kashmir region since gaining independence in 1947.

India blamed Pakistan for harboring Jaish-e-Muhammad, which has carried out some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks against India. That sparked fear of a new conflict in the volatile region, a terrifying prospect given that India and Pakistan collectively maintain 180 nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Assn.

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India’s decision to characterize the attack as a precision strike designed to avoid civilian casualties, however, gives Pakistan room to respond in a more measured manner.

Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Sahi from Islamabad. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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