Pakistan Says It Scrambled Fighters To Intercept Indian Jets Violating Its Airspace (Updated)

India and Pakistan are on edge weeks after a terrorist attack killed dozens of Indian troops in the country's Jammu and Kashmir region.

Peng Chen via Wikimedia

Details are still limited, but Pakistan claims that Indian military aircraft crossed the Line of Control separating both countries in the hotly contested Jammu and Kashmir region and violated its airspace, possibly in an attempt to strike targets on the Pakistani side. If true, this incident could threaten to provoke a major conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations, who have seen a precipitous decline in relations since a car bomb killed 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir earlier in February 2019.

Pakistani Major General Asif Ghafoor announced the violation, via his official Twitter account, early on Feb. 26, 2019, local time. He did not say how many Indian aircraft , or what type, had been involved in the reported incident or what the Pakistani Air Force's response consisted of afterward. An unconfirmed video appeared to show at least one JF-17 Thunder fighter jet heading off into the night at full afterburner.

"Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back," Major General Ghafoor's Tweet read. "Details to follow."

Ghafoor subsequently said that the Indian aircraft had head into the "Muzafarabad sector," which is a narrow portion of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The Pakistani general added that the intruding planes had jettisoned unspecified stores, which landed near Balakot, which is in Pakistan's adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. There were "no casualties or damage."

So far, there does not appear to be an official statement from the Indian government regarding the incident. Online plane spotters using flight tracking software did notice that there was an Indian Air Force Embraer EMB-145 airborne earlier warning aircraft in the skies near the border of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh to the south. 

The EMB-145s carry a large domestically-developed active-electronically scanned array radar that is especially adept at looking down from on high and detecting aircraft or cruise missiles. This would make the aircraft ideal for watching for any counter-attack, especially considering the mountainous terrain, which limits the coverage of land-based radars.

Another one of the aircraft, of which the Indian Air Force only has two, was spotted over the country's capital New Delhi in the aftermath of the incident, as well. An Il-78 Midas aerial refueling tanker was in the area, too.

On Feb. 24, 2019, Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, head of the Pakistani Air Force, had said his service was ready to "thwart any misadventure by the enemy," referring to India. Relations between the two countries have been at an all-time low since a terrorist drove a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device into a bus carrying Indian soldiers on a major highway in the Jammu and Kashmir region on Feb. 14, 2019.

The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 40 Indian military personnel and injured dozens more. The Indian government subsequently accused Pakistani authorities of being complicit in the bombing. The final status of Jammu and Kashmir has been at the center of a long-running and often violent dispute between India and Pakistan since the United Kingdom partitioned its Indian colony in 1947 and subsequently granted independence to both countries.

"The next steps will be taken by our armed forces," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said on Feb. 16, 2019, raising concerns that the two countries, both of which have nuclear weapons, might be headed toward another major conflict. "What should be the time, what should be the plan, and what should be the form, they have been authorized to take all these decisions," he added.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised to take action against Pakistan-based groups if India provides "actionable intelligence," but Indian authorities dismissed this offer as "lame excuse," given Jaish-e-Mohammed's known history of operating from Pakistani territory. Khan also threatened "retaliation, without even thinking," in response to any unilateral India strike. 

Update: 10:25pm EST—

There is no official statement from the Indian government about the incident so far, but Indian news outlets and defense analysts, citing anonymous sources, are reporting that a flight of Indian Mirage 2000 combat jets struck at least one Jaish-e-Mohammed camp across the line of control. It is still unclear exactly where the strike or strikes may have occurred and whether or not the stores that fell near Balakot were part of the operation.

Pakistani Major General Ghafoor did post pictures to Twitter showing the remains of the stores that the Indian aircraft released in the vicinity of Balakot. An actual strike in that area would be significant since it is not in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, but in Pakistan proper. Regardless, this appears to be the first time the Indian Air Force has crossed the line of control to hit targets on the other side since the 1971 war between India and Pakistan.

There are also unconfirmed reports that clashes have erupted on the ground along the Line of Control. Online plane spotters also noticed an Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and an An-32 Cline had flown to Jammu and Kashmir, possibly carrying reinforcements. In 2016, India did launch a cross border raid into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir targeting terrorist camps.

Update: 11:00pm EST—

Unconfirmed reports say that as many as 200 to 300 Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists may have died in the strikes.

Update: 11:20pm EST—

In what appears to be the first statement from an Indian government official, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, India's Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, has Tweeted out a statement appearing to confirm the strikes. The social media post also includes "#Balakot" and "#SurgicalStrike2," which appears to confirm the location was in Pakistan proper and making a reference to the 2016 cross-border raid, commonly known as the "Surgical Strikes." 

There has still not been an official Indian government statement on the incident.

Update: 11:50pm EST—

Rahul Ghandi, an Indian member of parliament and head of the country's main opposition Congress Party, has Tweeted out his own message appearing to confirm the strikes, but without any further details.  

Update: 1:20am EST—

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has given the first formal Indian government statement on the incident. In it, he confirmed India conducted strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balokot and has said they were preemptive and based on actionable intelligence that the group was planning another attack. 

Gokhale also said that the Indian military was still assessing the results of the strikes, but said that "a very large number" of terrorists, including a senior commander, had died as a result. He offered no details on the strike force composition or the munitions employed.

We have stopped making updates to this post, but you can find our continuing coverage of this still-evolving situation here.

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